The Mursi speak the Mursi language as a mother tongue. It is classified as Surmic, which is a branch of the Nilo-Saharan language family. Mursi is closely related (over 80% cognate) to Me’en and Suri, as well as Kwegu. According to the 1994 national census, there were 3,163 people who were identified as Mursi in the SNNPR; 3,158 spoke Mursi as their first language, while 31 spoke it as their second language.
Two orthographies for the Mursi language exist, one Amharic-based and the other Latin-based. The former was developed by members of the missionary organization Serving In Mission, who have worked amongst the Mursi at Maki since 1987. The Latin-based orthography was developed by Moges Yigezu of Addis Ababa University. Like many agro-pastoralists in East Africa, the Mursi experience a force greater than themselves, which they call Tumwi. This is usually located in the Sky, although sometimes Tumwi manifests itself as a thing of the sky (ahi a tumwin), such as a rainbow or a bird. The principal religious and ritual office in the society is that of Kômoru or Priest. This is an inherited office, unlike the more informal political role of the Jalaba.
The Priest embodies in his person the well-being of the group as a whole and acts as a means of communication between the community and God (Tumwi), especially when it is threatened by such events as drought, crop pests, and disease. His role is characterized by the performance of public rituals to bring rain, to protect men, cattle, and crops from disease, to ward off threatened attacks from other tribes, to safeguard the fertility of the soil, of men and of the cattle. Ideally, in order to preserve this link between the people and God, the Priest should not leave Mursiland or even his local group(bhuran). One clan, in particular, Komortê, is considered to be, par excellence, the priestly clan, but there are priestly families in two other clans, namely Garikuli and Bumai.
The religion of the Mursi people is classified as Animism, although there is a Serving in Mission Station in the northeastern corner of Mursi land, which provides education, basic medical care and instruction in Christianity.
The lip plate, also known as a lip plug or lip disc, is a form of body modification. Increasingly large discs (usually circular, and made from clay or wood) are inserted into a pierced hole in either the upper or lower lip or both, thereby stretching it. The term labret denotes all kinds of pierced-lip ornaments, including plates and plugs.
Archaeological evidence indicates that labrets have been independently invented no fewer than six times, in Sudan and Ethiopia (8700 BC), Mesoamerica (1500 BC), and Coastal Ecuador (500 BC). Today, the custom is maintained by a few groups in Africa and Amazonian.
In Africa, a lower lip plate is usually combined with the excision of the two lower front teeth, sometimes all four. Among the Sara people and Lobi of Chad, a plate is also inserted into the upper lip. Other tribes, such as the Makonde of Tanzania and Mozambique, used to wear a plate in the upper lip only. Many older sources reported that the plate’s size was a sign of social or economic importance in some tribes. But, because of the natural mechanical attributes of human skin, the plate’s size may often depend on the stage of stretching of the lip and the wishes of the wearer.
Among the Surma (own name Suri) and Mursi people of the lower Omo River valley in Ethiopia, about 6 to 12 months before marriage, a young woman has her lip pierced by her mother or one of her kinswomen, usually at around the age of 15 to 18. The initial piercing is done as an incision of the lower lip of 1 to 2 cm length, and a simple wooden peg is inserted. After the wound has healed, which usually takes between two and three weeks, the peg is replaced with a slightly bigger one. At a diameter of about 4 cm, the first lip plate made of clay is inserted. Every woman crafts her own plate and takes pride in including some ornamentation. The final diameter ranges from about 8 cm to over 20 cm.
In 1990 Beckwith and Carter claimed that for Mursi and Surma women, the size of their lip plate indicates the number of cattle paid as the bride price. Whereas anthropologist Turton, who studied the Mursi for 30 years, denies this. Shauna LaTosky, the building from field research among the Mursi in 2004, discusses in detail why most Mursi women use lip plates and describe the value of the ornamentation within a discourse of female strength and self-esteem.
In contemporary culture, most girls of age 13 to 18 appear to decide whether or not to wear a lip plate. This adornment has attracted tourists to view the Mursi and Surma women, with mixed consequences for these tribes.
In South America among some Amazonian tribes, young males traditionally have their lips pierced and begin to wear plates when they enter the men’s house and leave the world of women. Lip plates there are associated with oratory and singing. The largest plates are worn by the greatest orators and war chiefs, such as Chief Raoni of the Kayapo tribe, a well known environmental campaigner. In South America, lip plates are nearly always made from light wood.
In the Pacific Northwest of North America, among the Haida, Tsimshian, and Tlingit, lip plates are used by women to symbolize social maturity by indicating a girl’s eligibility to be a wife. The installation of a girl’s first plate was celebrated with a sumptuous feast.
In western nations, some young people, including some members of the Modern Primitive movement, have adopted larger-gauge lip piercings, a few large enough for them to wear proper lip plates.