Body piercing has been a popular form of body modification and self-expression across many cultures for thousands of years. But when did it actually begin? Determining the origins and evolution of body piercing can provide insight into the practices and beliefs of ancient societies. Tracing the historical timeline of this enduring trend reveals some fascinating details about the first known piercings.
Ear Piercing Origins
Archaeological evidence suggests that ear piercing was one of the earliest forms of body piercing practiced by humans. In 1991, the oldest mummified remains ever discovered were unearthed from a melting glacier in the Ötztal Alps between Austria and Italy. Later named Ötzi the Iceman, analysis of the remarkably preserved 5,300 year-old corpse showed he had an ear piercing in each earlobe.
Ötzi’s piercings were likely a form of acupuncture or pain relief treatment. The points on the earlobe that were pierced correspond to acupressure points that modern reflexology uses to treat conditions like sciatica, reproductive issues, and back pain. This demonstrates that even Stone Age humans had an intuitive understanding of how piercing certain body parts could provide health benefits.
Additionally, Ötzi’s 61 tattoos align with traditional Chinese acupuncture points as well. This reveals piercing and tattooing were part of integrative healing techniques possibly thousands of years before the first records of acupuncture in ancient China around 100 BC.
Other Early Ear Piercings
Many other prehistoric remains also exhibit pierced ears. In Spain, a Bronze Age woman’s 4,400 year-old skeleton was found to have ear piercings. Ancient Egyptian mummies dating back to 2000 BC feature ear piercings too. Decorative earrings and ear studs from burials of similar age further confirm the practice. Extensive ear piercing was especially notable among Egyptian royalty, like King Tutankhamun who ruled from 1332-1323 BC and died around age 19 with his ears pierced multiple times.
For the ancient Egyptians, ear piercing indicated social status and was restricted to elites at first. Then as the practice spread, different piercing locations signaled different ranks. Multiple piercings in both ears marked those of higher nobility and priests. This demonstrates ear piercing’s early emergence as an elite ritual and status symbol in some societies.
Cultural Spread of Ear Piercing
By around 500 BC, ear piercing was common for men and women throughout the Middle East, Asia, and Mediterranean regions. Decorative ear jewelry is well-represented across Phoenician, Etruscan, Greek, and Roman archaeological remains. The Bible also references ear piercings in several passages, such as Exodus 21:5-6.
Earlobe piercing continued spreading through trade and cultural interaction to places like Scandinavia during its Vendel Period from 550-793 AD. The Norse Vikings were known to wear gold and silver ear piercings as an indicator of their traveling lifestyle and success in pillaging. By Medieval times from the 5th to 15th centuries AD, earrings were prevalent across the Indian subcontinent, Middle East, and Europe for men and women of all social classes.
This widespread adoption signals ear piercing was likely the earliest form of permanent body piercing practiced continuously by humans for thousands of years globally. Ear piercings are considered the first piercings based on their discovery in ancient remains and continuity through major historical periods.
Nose Piercing History
After ears, the nose may have been the next spot on the human body embellished with piercings historically. Nose piercings have been traditionally practiced in the Middle East, India, and surrounding regions as far back as 1500 BC. Like ear piercings, they often served as jewelry and status indicators initially before spreading to the general population.
Middle East Nose Piercings
One of the earliest known nose piercings comes from a Sumerian legend in ancient Mesopotamia about the goddess Ishtar. According to the myth dating back to around 2300 BC, Ishtar’s nose ring was magical and enabled the goddess to breathe life into humans. Kings in the subsequent Akkadian empire from 2334-2154 BC are also depicted wearing nose studs in ancient relief carvings.
By 1500 BC, nose piercings were adopted by the Babylonians and mentioned in the oldest surviving work of literature, the Epic of Gilgamesh. They’re similarly referenced in the Bible’s Book of Genesis chapter 24 verse 22 when Abraham’s servant gives Rebecca a nose ring. Towards 700 BC, nose piercings were popular in Assyria based on royal portraits with elaborate nose jewelry.
These ancient accounts suggest nose piercings originated among Middle Eastern rulers before spreading to wider society. They signaled prestige and nobility initially, much like early ear piercings.
India’s Nose Piercing Traditions
Nose piercing has endured as an integral cultural tradition in India for thousands of years as well. The earliest evidence comes from the Indus Valley Civilization which flourished between 3300-1300 BC. Excavated statues of women depict nose studs, indicating this was a common ornamentation.
Later Vedic scriptures specify types of nose jewelry for women called nath and laung worn on the left or right nostril. Images of Lakshmi, the Hindu goddess of wealth, fertility, and auspiciousness dating back over 1,500 years consistently feature a nose piercing. Indian medicinal practice Ayurveda also recognizes nose piercing benefits for reproductive health based on the pressure point spot.
In South Asia today, nose piercings remain an important cultural rite of passage for young women in many communities. They’re traditionally done with gold on the left side for Hindus and the right side for Muslims. This ancient ritual is so woven into the Indian subcontinent’s heritage that an unwed woman without a nose piercing would be considered abnormal.
Spread to Southeast Asia
Through trade and migration over centuries, nose piercing spread across Asia. It was adopted most prominently in Southeast Asia by the 16th and 17th centuries. Traditional hill tribes in modern day Thailand, Myanmar, Borneo, and the Philippines practiced extensive ear, nose, and facial piercing. These indicated tribal identity and status among groups like the Dayaks, Kayan, and Berawan.
Today nose studs remain integral to ceremonies and cultural identity in this region just as in South Asia. The wide historical practice confirms nose piercing as one of the earliest and most enduring bodily piercings globally after ears.
Lip and Oral Piercings
After ear and nose piercings, oral piercings of the lip and tongue also have ancient origins in some cultures. While less common than ear or nose jewelry historically, archaeological evidence indicates they were the next facial spots adorned in certain societies.
Ancient American Lip Piercings
Among Pre-Columbian civilizations in Central and South America, lip and oral piercings were prevalent. The first known instance dates back over 1,500 years. Moche ceramic pottery from ancient Peru around 200-500 AD frequently depicts men with lip piercings, often wearing large ornamental labrets in the lower lip.
The Maya civilization flourished between 250-900 AD with sophisticated art and architecture. Noble Maya men are portrayed in reliefs and sculptures wearing carved jade or obsidian labret plugs in their lips and ears. This lip piercing style continued with the later Aztec Empire from 1300-1521 AD, whose emperors wore serpent shaped labret rings as symbols of divinity and power.
Early Spanish accounts describe how Aztec priests perforated their lips with obsidian blades and burned incense in the openings as ritual blood sacrifices. Though gruesome, this illustrates how the Aztecs elevated lip piercing to sacred status as both adornment and religious practice.
Lip Piercing in the Pacific
Oral piercing practices later independently developed on remote Pacific islands as well. Hawaiian Kahunas are known to have pierced their lips as part of cultural ceremonies. Tongue piercing was reported among Cook Islanders when first encountered by Europeans in the 1600s. Lip piercing traditions were also notable across many aboriginal tribes in modern day New Guinea and Borneo.
But the most dramatic and enduring lip piercing culture evolved among the indigenous Botocudo peoples in Brazil. The large lip plate discs they inserted gave them a fierce appearance and became integral to tribal identity. Neighboring groups found their custom so strange, they nicknamed them “Botocudos” meaning “big lips” in Portuguese.
Though rare elsewhere historically, archaeological evidence confirms lip and mouth piercing did originate independently in the ancient Americas and Pacific, continuing today in a few tribal groups.
Nipple and Genital Piercing Origins
Unlike facial and ear piercings, nipple and genital piercing practices were far less common in ancient cultures. While erotic stimuli was likely a factor in their early use like today, evidence suggests ritualistic or cultural purposes were also associated with these intimate piercings.
Roman Nipple Piercings
The earliest historical accounts of nipple piercing come from Ancient Rome. Roman centurions were known to pierce their nipples as a demonstration of virility and courage. It showed their toughness and discipline as soldiers, able to withstand the pain and overcome fear.
This relates to the wider Roman cultural view associating the chest and nipples with strength and masculinity. The piercing displayed both the centurion’s battlefield bravery as well as pride in his masculinity to his comrades and the Roman public. Though isolated to soldiers, nipple piercings were an accepted emblem of honor and manliness in Roman culture.
Ancient Genital Piercings
Genital piercings have likewise been discovered in ancient remains. Perforated bones have been identified in phallus bones of Roman era corpses in England. Contemporary Roman accounts also recorded various types of penis piercings. These included passing a pin through the foreskin or piercing the head entirely for stimulating effects during intercourse or foreplay.
The ancient Maya in Mexico also practiced genital piercings around 250-900 AD. Jade, bone, obsidian, and wood penile inserts have been excavated from Maya sites in Belize. These were believed to enhance pleasure and fertility for both partners. The Maya’s view of phalluses and fertility as sacred led to the ritual practice spreading among commoners.
Though taboo in most societies, nipple and genital piercings had limited niche purposes in the ancient Western world related to soldierly displays, eroticism, and fertility rituals rather than purely aesthetic reasons.
Tracing the origins of body piercing reveals ear and nose piercings were likely the first practices dating back over 5,000 and 3,500 years respectively. They were initially used as status symbols in ancient Egyptian, Middle Eastern, and Indian cultures before becoming common ornamentation. Oral and lip piercings also emerged in Pre-Columbian American societies and the Pacific islands for thousands of years in certain tribal rituals. While nipple and genital piercing were rarer ancient practices, they hint at the broader purposes body piercings have served throughout human history beyond just decoration.
From Ötzi the Iceman to Aztec emperors to Hindu traditions, body piercings have carried important social and cultural meaning for each society that adopted them. While styles and trends evolved, the practice of piercing as identity, status, ceremony, beauty, and even medicine continued evolving into the widespread phenomenon it remains today.