Igbo Tribal Marks and Meanings

Igbo Tribal Marks And Their Meanings

One of Nigeria’s largest ethnic groupings is the Igbo, commonly referred to as the Ibo or the Ebo. The cultural history of the Igbo people of Nigeria is rich and firmly established in tradition and custom.  Their rich tapestry of culture, religion, language, and beliefs is highlighted by their cultural heritage. Tribal marks, or the practice of scarification of the face, are among the most distinctive aspects of Igbo culture. 

Many people in the community place great value on these marks because they are a fundamental component of Igbo culture.

The Igbo tribal marks are different from those of other ethnic groups. In contrast to the Yoruba and Nuba tribes,  The Igbo mark is a single scar that is frequently applied on the forehead rather than a number of little cuts over the face. By cutting a tiny cut in the skin with a sharp item, such as a razor, and then applying ash or other materials to the wound, the marks are produced. The ultimate effect is a raised scar, frequently with unique patterns or designs.

Igbo tribal marks were once seen as a symbol of attractiveness and gave the bearer a sense of identity. The marks were seen as a means of differentiating members of various clans and familial groups, according to oral tradition. This made it simple for Igbo people to recognize other tribe members when they traveled or traded with other groups.

The adornment of these distinctive marks, particularly the ink-inclined Uli, is facilitated by special occasions. Young girls and their moms used to decorate their bodies with special ink during festival season, especially on the legs, arms, abdomen, and faces, to attract attention.

Igbo Tribal Marks

How Are The Tribal Marks Made?

The scarification process produces tribal markings. On children’s faces or other portions of their bodies, those who make these marks typically use razors or other sharp items. The skin is then prevented from contracting while the body tries to mend itself by rubbing native dye made from charcoal markings. The natural color also aids in preventing bleeding.

According to oral tradition, the practice of scarification first emerged in Nigeria during the time of the slave trade, when Europeans enslaved Nigerians and packed them onto ships like sardines. People began marking their family members so that they could be recognized if and when they were captured and later found.

These permanent markings evolved into means of identification that were passed down from family to family, among neighbors in the same community, for royal lineage, and among members of the same bloodline.

Therefore, in addition to being identified as Igbos by their marks, the children are also designated as being a part of a specific family by the unique family mark. In addition to serving as identification, these marks serve a spiritual purpose.

Like the Ogbanje mark, which prevents the Ogbanje spirit from claiming a child as their own. The child is shielded from any attacks by the spirit once the mark has been made on their face.

The royal-born, free-born, and slaves or outcasts (osu) are also identified by these marks. In the past, it was easy to distinguish between the strata of the community event without being told. A scar that has made them an outcast can be seen on them.

Why do the Igbo people don’t have tribal marks like they used to?

Facial scarification was once a common practice among the Igbo, who believed it enhanced their beauty, made them stand out, and denoted noble birth. A person’s tribe, family, and social standing were determined by it.

Only individuals who had demonstrated their merit in various facets of life were eligible to get facial scarification, therefore not everyone could have them.

The Igbo tribal mark’s traditional significance has largely faded in modern times. The influence of Christianity and industrialization or Western civilization are just two causes of this.

Since many Igbo have become Christians, they no longer see the necessity for ethnic markings. The number of traditional practices, including the practice of marking the face, has also decreased as a result of modernity, 

The knowledge that facial scarification is a kind of physical violence that can inflict excruciating pain, diseases, and even death from profuse bleeding is another reason why the practice is declining among the Igbo people. The Igbo people have abandoned this ritual and adopted other, less destructive ones in its place.

However, the tribal mark still has a high value for some Igbo people. The mark serves as a connection to their ancestors and a reminder of their heritage for these people. They consider the mark to be a symbol of their cultural identity and a reminder of their history.

The tribal mark’s value can also be observed in the way that it is passed down from one generation to the next. The tribal mark denotes dignity and social standing in some lineages. The mark is handed down from father to son and is thought to help preserve the family’s heritage and customs.

The tribal mark still plays a significant role in Igbo customs, although having lost most of its traditional importance. The tribal mark serves as a reminder of one’s heritage and a way to uphold cultural customs for those who desire to continue the tradition.

The tribal mark has drawn a lot of criticism while having great cultural value.

Some claim it is a form of mutilation that has no useful function. Others contend that the mark serves as a reminder of a time when Igbo people faced prejudice and discrimination.

Despite these objections, some aspects of Igbo society still practice tribal marking. This is due to the mark’s special significance to many Igbo people and its role in preserving their cultural identity.

Meanings of Igbo Tribal Marks

Igbo tribal markings are a distinctive way for members of the ethnic group to distinguish among the many villages and families. The Igbo young children typically get the marks carved into their faces at a very young age, typically between the ages of one and five. The process of making the marks can take up to several hours and is often done with a sharp razor blade or knife.

Different Igbo tribes have distinctive face scarification techniques, and the marks vary in significance depending on the group. Some of the popular Igbo tribes with tribal marks are the Aboh, Mbaise, Nri, Ajalli, and Onitsha. Here are some meanings behind Igbo tribal marks.

1. Aboh Tribal Marks

In Delta State, Nigeria, there is an Igbo tribe known as the Aboh people. Their tribal marks are two horizontal lines on each cheek, running from the ears to the chin. The Aboh tribal marks signify beauty, and it was believed that women with these marks were more attractive than those without.

2. Mbaise Tribal Marks

Mbaise is an Igbo community in Imo State, Nigeria. Mbaise tribal marks are three horizontal lines on each cheek, close to the mouth. The marks show that the people of Mbaise are strong, patient, and resilient.

Read on Yoruba tribal marks and their meanings

3. Tribal Marks of Onitsha

The Onitsha people are an Igbo tribe from Anambra State, Nigeria. Four vertical lines are the Onitsha tribal markings on the chin. The markings stand for valor and pride.

4. Ajalli Tribal Marks

The Ajalli people are an Igbo subgroup found in Anambra State, Nigeria. Two vertical lines that extend from the temples to the jaw are the Ajalli tribal marks. The symbols stand for strength and beauty.

5. Nri Tribal Marks

Igbo Tribal Marks

The Nri people are an Igbo tribe from Anambra State, Nigeria. On each cheek, there are three vertical lines belonging to the Nri tribe that extends from the temples to the jaw. The symbols stand for knowledge, intelligence, and wisdom.


In conclusion, the Igbo tribal mark is a unique tradition that holds significant cultural meaning for many members of the Igbo community. Igbo tribal marks were once a prominent tradition among the Igbo people. While the practice has lost much of its cultural significance in modern times, it remains an important way for some people to connect with their cultural heritage. 

However, contemporary Western civilization and Christianity have led to a fall in the practice. Igbo tribal marks are essential to the Igbo culture and have meanings behind them. They signify beauty, strength, wisdom, intelligence, and pride. Although the practice of facial scarification may be in decline, it will forever remain a significant part of the rich cultural heritage of the Igbo people.

As with any cultural practice, it is critical to strike a balance between tradition, pragmatism, and sensitivity to shifting standards.

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