Body piercing has become a major trend in Western culture. Ear piercing began in the early 1980s, when modern piercing techniques were invented and became hygienic. Western culture has no known history or tradition of body piercing, but many view it as a teenage rebellion and adolescents as significant, ritualistic body modification with a cult following, contributing to a sense of belonging. The body art scene began on the West Coast and many children and adults can now be seen around the world wearing nose rings, eyebrow and lip piercings, and stretched ear muffs. Another facet of body piercing called game piercing is done purely for the feeling of being pierced, the holes that are made in the body are not permanent and are done purely for adornment and aesthetics.
The piercing has its origins 4,000 years ago in the Middle East and mentions of ‘Shanf’ (nose ring) are recorded on the body. Traditionally, this practice is seen in the nomadic African Beja and Berber tribes and among the Bedouin of the Middle East, denoting wealth and status for a woman at the time of marriage. In 16th century India, nose piercing came into vogue as a trend from the Middle East and Mughal emperors. The woman’s nose is most commonly pierced in the left nostril in association with Ayurvedic medicinal principles relating to the female reproductive organs, allowing for easier labor and relieving menstrual pain. Western nose piercing came from hippies who traveled to India during the 1960s fascination with Indian culture and saw further popularity in the late 1970s punk movement as a counter-cultural and anti-conservative statement.
The ancient Aztecs, Mayans, and Native American tribes of the Northwestern United States used tongue piercings to offer blood and appease the gods, often producing an altered state in the pierced priest or shaman to more effectively communicate with the gods. Pierced ears and earlobes are the earliest recorded examples of body piercing. Pierced ears on the body of a mummified man found in an Austrian glacier in 1991 were found to be more than 5,000 years old. Ear piercing has a protective symbology in primitive cultures to prevent evil spirits from entering the body through the ears. Ear piercings were not restricted to women’s adornment, “As the Roman Republic became more effeminate with wealth and luxury, earrings were more popular with men than women; no less than a macho man like Julius Caesar brought back the wearing of rings in men’s ears to the reputation and fashion”. “Jewelry and Women; Romance, Magic, and the Art of Feminine Adornment” Marianne Ostier, Horizon Press, New York, 1958
The Dogon tribe of Mali and the Nuba of Ethiopia pierce their lips for religious implications. In the native tribes of Central Africa and South America, lip or lip piercing is done with wooden or clay plates, stretching the upper and lower lips to great proportions. The ancient Aztecs and Mayans wore labret piercings to indicate wealth and higher caste with golden serpent-shaped discs, often decorated with brilliant stones, jade or obsidian. Walrus ivy, bone, wood, or abalone shell were used for labrets by the Native Americans of the Pacific Northwest, as well as the Inuit of northern Canada and Alaska. Some of the most extreme examples of ritual lip piercing and stretching can be seen among Djinja women in the Chari River area of the Central African Republic and Chad. Members of the tribe stretch the lips of their future wives as part of a marriage ritual in which the young woman’s lip is stretched up to 24 cm in adulthood.
The warrior cultures of Iranian Jaya, New Gunea, and the Solomon Islands pierce the septum with pig tusks, feathers, wood, and bone.
The Asmat tribe of Jaya pierces the septum up to 25mm using leg bones from a pig or a tibia bone from a slain enemy for ornamentation and prestige. The Aztecs, Mayans and Incas pierced the septum with gold and jade and this custom can be seen in the Panamanian tribe of Cuna Indians wearing thick gold rings. Septum piercing is also practiced by the native tribes of India and Nepal. Nose and septum piercings in the nomadic North Indian tribes of Himichal Pradesh and Rajasthan called ‘bulak’ are the largest known nose rings. Bulak are sometimes decorated with stones and are large enough to cover most of the mouth and cheek and must be raised while eating. Pendants are added to the septum piercing in Tibet.
In more civilized and traditionally sophisticated cultures, the nipple piercing was created to accentuate the breasts. In the mid-14th century, Queen Elizabeth of Bavaria wore dresses with a neckline that extended to the navel, exposing the breasts. This style of clothing led to the adornment of the nipples with diamond-studded rings and the piercing of both nipples, extending a chain through both. This style of piercing appeared again in the 1890s in Paris where “breast rings” were sold and became fashionable in upper-class social circles.