The Painful and Surprising History of Body Piercing

You wouldn’t be surprised to hear that body modifications, most notably piercings, are one of the oldest forms of body art on earth. Unconnected cultures from around the world have a rich and vibrant history of skewering themselves with random bits of metal.

One of the oldest preserved mummies ever found Ortiz, who died in the Alps over 5000 years ago was adorned with both piercings and tattoos. There are records that ancient cultures pierced everything from their noses to their nipples. Certain types of piercing, such as a nose ring signified varying levels of social hierarchy.

Body piercings Across Cultures

  • Many prehistoric cultures from the Americas had intricate and complicated rules regarding which parts of the body could get pierced by whom. Some ancient folks called the Olmec who resided in what is modern-day Mexico were known to pierce men with giant spacer plugs in their cheeks. These plugs got wider in diameter as the men got older. Unfortunately, we only have evidence in the form of masks to gain an understanding of what this looked like in reality.
  • For the Aztecs, the placement of the piercing also indicated social hierarchy. The position of the piercing on the ear showed how high up you were in society. Those of royal or high nobility were allowed to have their lips, ears, and nose piercings made of solid gold. Precious stones such as emeralds, rubies and sapphires were only allowed to be worn by those in positions of power.
  • The Romans considered earrings and body piercing to be a pretty tame form of artistic expression. There was, though, a particular type of body ornamentation that will make you take a deep breath. Back in ancient Rome, some athletes, young male singers, or actors of the time would have their foreskins pierced in an attempt to prevent their voices breaking during puberty. The idea was that if the foreskins were pulled forward and pierced on the sides, this would prevent the boy from having sex, which would, they believed, stop their voices breaking and therefore prolong their ability to perform and sing high pitched songs. Now that’s a dedication to one’s art!

Luckily, these days, such brutality is rare. Of course, there are still many uncontacted or remote tribes throughout the world who have a long history of body piercing. African, Aboriginal and many South American tribal cultures are worth researching if you are planning your next piercing.