Ancient Alaskan Labrets: jewelry that spoke louder than words

Merry Ann Moore for Frontier Scientists

Labrets, ornamental lip plugs worn through a perforation in the lower lip or cheek, are a frequent find in coastal Alaskan archaeological sites.  From prehistoric times, members of Aleut, Eskimo, and Indian hunter-gatherer tribes wore them for personal adornment, to reflect social affiliation, and to broadcast hereditary rank.  Because they were made of durable materials—wood, bone, stone—many have been preserved through the ages, providing important clues to frontier scientists about life in ancient coastal Alaska.  (See the video Jewelry Alutiiq Style.)

According to archaeologist Amy Steffian, who collects and interprets artifacts for the Alutiiq Museum on Kodiak Island, “In many traditions, labrets were used to broadcast messages. They indicated territorial boundaries and social rank.  They helped tribes quickly predict how things would go when they encountered others.  They helped maintain group cohesion at a time when warfare was common among hunter-gatherers who traveled long distances by boat, and  found themselves competing for food, raw materials, and even spouses with their neighbors.”

Photo credit: Virtual Museum of Canada (VMC) – Inuvialuit natives on Herschel Island in the 1890s. The man is wearing labrets made of bone and large blue glass beads, a sign of high status.

A good deal of Steffian’s work has focused on prehistoric Gulf of Alaska societies from the Kodiak Archipelago, the northern-most region of the Pacific Ocean, where maritime foragers have lived for the past 7,500 years.  Ethnicity, regional affiliation, family ties, gender, age, grade, ownership, rank, and religious beliefs are some of the social categories that are stylistically symbolized by traditional labrets, as noted in a study she co-authored with colleague Patrick Saltonstall.

Labret piercing took place in childhood, with labret holes periodically stretched over an individual’s life to accommodate larger ornaments. Plugs were inserted below the lower lip or at the corners of the mouth at either birth or puberty. The initial incision was usually quite small and fit with a slender object to prevent closure.  The variation was tremendous: inlays, incised designs, and attachments were common additions to the basic labret forms.

Traditional labrets were made of coal, wood, limestone and ivory

With the widespread arrival in Alaska of foreign explorers, merchants and missionaries in the 18th century, labrets rapidly disappeared.  During the Russian period such piercings were signs of rank, and those individuals were singled out as hostages.  Westerners also found labrets a horrifying facial disfigurement, and along with changes in society, the use of such ornaments was quickly abandoned.

Interestingly, the purpose and stylistic variety found in this traditional jewelry carry on today, as demonstrated by current fashions.  Tattoos, eye-popping hair dyes and piercings are popular ways for youth of today to broadcast their identity not just to puzzled parents but to the world.  Modern-day labrets’ function hasn’t changed; they demonstrate membership in a like-minded group, express personal identity, and differentiate the wearers from other groups.

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