Many historians conflict the real starting point/era of tribal marks but it is an accepted fact it’s purpose is identification. In the ancient Yoruba empire formation, only slaves were known to wear tribal marks. It is a sign to identify and distinguish a slave owner from another. Although the mark is not only for ordinary slaves but one that has earned a status in his master house i.e. a slaves that cannot be easily resold.

Although other culture too are common with giving mark to slaves but not in open places likes the face.


Abaja style Tribal mark


Abaja Alagbe style Tribal mark

Another school of historians belief that the origin of tribal mark started as a result of desperation and futility of war,whereby families and tribes quickly make indigenous or identify them after the war whether they are victorious or vanquished so as not to sell themselves into slavery.

The two schools of thought have a common ground of slavery and identification. The latter is the most prominent reason and purpose why most people still wear theirs marks.

Using the Yoruba and Fulani race as a benchmark one will understand their marks also adds to their facial beauty and sometimes gives radiant effect to their facial expression.

Although these tribal marks varies in depth, length and strikes. It ranges from one mark strike to as much as fifty which is quite out of moderation, but it is believed that the more the marks the more the beauty and cultural Interpretation.

A new school of historians however belief Tribal marks is a facial art only that its permanently and is made mostly at childhood and there is no freedom of choice hereby criticizing it.

However the African traditionalist believes it is a cultural inheritance and is laterally tribe based which is still evident till today.

The Yoruba race has more than seventy indigenous tribes or group with coherent and distinctive language qualities. However more than half of the indigenous Yoruba tribes or ethnic groups has more than one distinctive tribal mark.

In Nigeria, each mark has distinctive qualities and you can identify a tribe by her tribal mark. Although they’re some tribal marks that are definitely generic but the dialectical difference in language will also be another distinctive factor distinguishing it by name.

Here are example of some indigenous tribal marks common around the world (Note they are specifically named after their local name and no English translation is available for now)

  1. Abaja: This is a generic three stroke mark that goes both sides across the side of the face. It can also be six on both cheeks having six strokes divided into three in a column on each cheek.
  2. Abaja Merin(four): Abaja is naturally three but the difference between Abaja merin and Abaja is that this one is specifically four.
  3. Abaja Alagbede: The first Abaja is always in a vertical slant but this Abaja Alagbele will have both the vertical and the horizontal on each cheek most times the vertical is sometimes larger and at the base of the cheeks.
  4. Pele: This really means straight, although it may also means sorry, so this is a generic tribal mark but can be traced as each tribes differs in the number it has or sizes, some are very tiny while some can be as long and dominating as from just below the eyes to the side of the mouth, but it is regarded as the most beautiful of all tribal marks and popular too.

    Ture style Tribal mark

    Ture style Tribal mark

  5. Ture: this is a traditional tribal mark for important people it is somehow gender sensitive to the female gender. The true has tiers smaller horizontal marks closer to the mouth on each side of the of the cheek and has another three longer horizontal strokes after the small three and ending close to both ears, having 12 strokes on both cheeks.

    Gombo style tribal marks

    Gombo style tribal marks

  6. Keke/Gombo: This is the scariest and is common around Oyo,Ibadan, Ogbomoso, Ede, Iwo and Osogbo which is the capital of the present day Osun state in Nigeria. Gombo mostly starts from head or hairs to the mouth forming a “L” sign in there or four strokes and sometimes have a small Abaja going towards the nose or the eyes. The Gombo is an extreme facial art and sometimes could get out of hand while it is being designed.


These are the commonest forms of tribal marks. We also have some tribal marks which are specifically for royal houses and is not permitted to be documented and some illustrations below depicts some tribal (rather than prevous generic) marks.

This however explains why the tribal mark culture or art is still being encouraged and carried on unto this day for cultural posterity and preservation.

Pictures from this article are copyrighted materials from “AWON ASA ATI ORISA ILE YORUBA” ONIBON-OJE PRESS & BOOK INDUSTRIES (NIG.) (LTD.)