Expanded ear piercings or more generally referred to as stretched earlobes is a tradition that has lived for centuries - particularly those of the earlobes and lower lip. For many of the world's tribes, it is even an essential body modification. Having emerged independently in such diverse locations as North America, The Amazon, Asia, Africa, Polynesia and New Zealand; the practice has recently provoked growing interest in the West.
The ear-lobe was probably man's first attempt at piercing, due to the ease at which it is pierced. The oldest mummified body to be found with pierced ears and expanded earlobes (7-11mm in diameter) was found frozen in an Austrian Glacier, and tests show it to be over 5,000 years old!
The first ear piercings arose amongst primitive tribes for magical purposes. Believing that demons and spirits were repelled by metal, the tribe's wore metallic ear piercings to prevent the penetration of bad spirits. Sailors would have their ears pierced to improve their eyesight and if sailor's bodies would wash up against some shore, the ear jewellery would pay for a Christian burial. In many societies, ear piercing is done as a ritual indicating puberty, of which each of the parents would pierce an ear, symbolising the child's dependence upon them.
The Ancient Egyptians are of the oldest bodies found with stretched ear lobes. They also loved to adorn themselves elaborately and even restricted certain types of body piercings to the royal family. An interesting fact is that only the pharaoh was allowed to have his navel pierced and anyone else who did so would be executed. Egyptians wore earrings to display their wealth and portray their beauty.
The Ancient Romans were very practical and piercings for them always served a purpose. They would pierce their nipples to signify strength and virility. It was in fact a badge of honour that demonstrated their dedication to the Roman Empire. It symbolised unity and bond amongst the Roman army. Julius Caesar himself pierced his nipples to show his strength and signify his unity with his men.
At around the same time, the Aztecs, Mayans and various American Indians pierced their tongues as part of their religious rituals. They believed it brought them closer to their Gods as a type of ritual blood-letting. These were warrior tribes, thus practised septum piercing to appear fiercer to their enemies. Similarly, some tribes in New Guinea and the Solomon Islands would pierce their tongue. Common materials used were bone, tusks and feathers.
In Central and South America, women with lip labrets were considered more beautiful. Holes were often stretched to incredible sizes as progressively large wooden plates were inserted to emphasize the lips. Aztecs and Mayans would also wear lip labrets made out of Jade and Gold, elaborately carved into mythical or religious figures which was viewed as highly attractive and was believed to enhance sexuality.
During the Renaissance and Elizabethan eras, almost every male member of the nobility would have at least one earring, if not more. Large pearl drops and enormous diamond studs were a great way to advertise one's wealth. Then in the last hundred years or so, nose piercing became very popular when young hippies from the U.S began travelling to India extensively looking for enlightenment. They started to imitate the Indian's traditional nose ring, often linked to an earring by a chain. After bringing back nose rings to the U.S, an interest in body piercing arose! Nose piercing has been practised by the Bedouin tribes of the Middle East, the Beja people of Africa and the Australian Aborigines for a very long time.
Why do we pierce? Well, the reasons for piercing vary greatly. Some people do so for religious or spiritual reasons, while others do so for self-expression. Others for aesthetic value, for sexual pleasure, to conform one's culture or even to rebel against it. The practice has developed many variations of style and techniques across the world. A piece of jewellery, string or a stick is inserted into the earlobe. In some places, the combination of weights is gradually added so that the earlobes stretch many times the original length. In some traditions it is the long earlobes and not the jewellery that are considered attractive. Many times the ear piercing and stretching forms part of rites to step into adulthood. In some parts of Africa women start to stretch their lips six months before marriage. The size of the lip plate indicates the number of cattle the husband will have to pay for her dowry.