Men and women alike have been piercing their ears for cosmetic and ritualistic purposes since time immemorial. When did people first start piercing their ears? What reasons have different cultures had for engaging in the ancient practice of ear piercing? How is it that ear piercings have remained one of the most popular types of body piercings throughout time? What types of ear piercings can you get today? We answer these questions and more in this History of Ear Piercings.
What Are Ear Piercings?
Classically, the term “ear piercing” has referred to piercings of the earlobe, but today there are more than 13 different types of ear piercings you can get. Each ear can accommodate multiples of certain ear piercings, too, so a single person could potentially have 30+ ear piercings. For instance, some people have 2-5 helix (upper ear cartilage) piercings and several earlobe piercings, in addition to cartilage ear piercings like rook, tragus, daith, industrial, and conch piercings.
You can learn more about the different types of ear piercings and where each one is placed by reading our Ear Piercing FAQs and by reviewing the diagram below.
Ear Piercing Through Time
Earlobes are so easy to pierce that it’s commonly thought that earlobe piercings were one of the first types of body piercings that man attempted. We know the practice dates back at least 5,000 years, thanks to the discovery of Ötzi the Iceman’s mummy. Ötzi the Iceman lived during the late 4th millennium B.C. (i.e. closer to 3001 B.C. than 4000 B.C.) and died in a valley of the Alps known as Ötzi, for which his mummy was named. In addition to being adorned with primitive tattoos consisting of dots and dashes, Ötzi also had his earlobes pierced and stretched to between 7 and 11 millimeters.
In addition to the physical proof of ear piercing in ancient times that Ötzi the Iceman’s mummy provides, there are also many references to ear piercings in ancient artwork and documents from around the globe. For instance, in the ancient Persian city Persepolis, there are carvings on the inner walls of the palace that depict male soldiers adorned with earrings. The ancient Egyptians also pierced their ears, as evidenced by earrings found in the tombs of Tutankhamen (King Tut) and other pharaohs.
Fast forward to Biblical times, and you’ll find that there are also references to ear piercing in the Bible. The book of Genesis describes Abraham’s son Isaac giving his future wife, Rebekah, a “Shanf”, which directly translates to “golden earring” but was actually a nose ring. In Exodus, Aaron told the Israelites to bring him their sons’ and daughters’ earrings and other jewelry so that he could make a golden idol for them to satisfy their demands for a god to worship while Moses was up on Mount Sinai. These are just two examples of the references to earrings in the Bible.
Men and women of the ancient Roman Republic commonly wore earrings as a status symbol. Women often wore gemstone earrings, while men were more likely to wear rings. In the book Jewels & Women: The Romance, Magic and Art of Feminine Adornment, Marianne Ostier wrote, “As the Roman Republic grew more effeminate with wealth and luxury, earrings were more popular among men than women; no less a he-man than Julius Caesar brought back to repute and fashion the use of rings in the ears of men.”
In the many centuries since Biblical and ancient Roman times, ear piercing has been a prevalent practice among primitive people all over the world. Tribal people from Africa, Turkey, Polynesia, South America, and elsewhere have been piercing their ears for magical and ritualistic purposes for eons. Many tribal people believe that demons can enter the body through the ear. They also believe that metal repels evil spirits, so they pierce their ears to keep demons out. There are also tribes that pierce their children’s ears for ritualistic purposes, typically at the onset of puberty. For instance, in Borneo, a mother and father will each pierce one of their child’s ears as a symbol of the child’s dependence on its parents. In South America, the Mayans pierced their ears for ritualistic purposes. They would often wear gold or jade earrings, because they believed these materials had supernatural powers.
In the late 1500s, the English Renaissance spurred an ear piercing fashion trend among refined gentlemen. According to a record written by the clergyman William Harrison, upper class men would wear gold, stone or pearl earrings in their ears during the Renaissance. The most notable men to wear earrings around that time were Shakespeare, Sir Walter Raleigh and Francis Drake, who all wore gold rings in their ears. Sailors were also known to pierce one of their ears for various purposes during that time, but it wasn’t a new trend for them like it was for English gentlemen. The practice of ear piercing among sailors actually dates back to ancient Greece, well before Biblical times. Some sailors had a misconception that piercing their ears would improve their eyesight and keep them safe at sea. Other sailors pierced their ears symbolically after completing the great accomplishment of crossing the equator or sailing around the world. Whatever their initial motivation for piercing their ears, most sailors recognized that an earring could help strangers afford to give them a proper burial, should they die at sea and have their body wash up on a foreign shore.
It was traditional for Ainu men and women to pierce their ears until the Japanese government forbade men to wear earrings in the late 1800s. It remained a common practice among tribal cultures in the years after that, but ear piercing wasn’t widely popular in western civilization until the mid 1900s.
Between the 1920s and 1950s, clip on earrings were more popular than traditional earrings in the US and other modern societies; “good girls” wore them to show their conformity to societal standards of the time. In the 1950s and 1960s, most people pierced their ears at home since there wasn’t yet a commercial market for ear piercing. In the US, girls often had at-home ear piercing parties; they’d use ice cubes to numb each other’s ears before piercing them with sewing needles, sometimes using potatoes to receive the needles. For a period of time between the 60s and 80s, before ear piercing kiosks started popping up in malls and dedicated piercing shops were established, it was also common for parents to have their family doctors pierce their little girls’ ears so that the procedures were done in sterile environments. Today, there are tattoo and piercing shops in every major city in the US, Europe, Australia, and other industrialized countries. If you want your ears pierced, you likely won’t have to drive more than an hour away to have a professional piercer pierce your ears.
Although ear piercing was considered an effeminate practice in western civilization for many years, both men and women now get their ears pierced with almost equal frequency. Statistics show that 83% of men and women in the US have had one or both earlobes pierced at least once, and 30% of people have one or more other types of ear piercings. The tribal-inspired tradition of stretching the earlobes to larger gauges to accommodate plugs and tunnels is also growing in popularity in western civilization. Men are somewhat more likely to stretch their ears than women, but the practice isn’t uncommon for either sex now.
What You Should Know Before Getting an Ear Piercing
If you’re considering getting a cartilage or earlobe piercing, it’s a good idea to find a professional piercer who uses sterile piercing needles to pierce your ears. Piercing kiosks typically use piercing guns to perform ear piercings, which is not ideal. Piercing guns shoot relatively blunt studs through the ear with great force, often tearing the skin raggedly on the way through. If used for other types of ear piercings, piercing guns can completely shatter ear cartilage. They’re also not very sterile, because piercing guns can’t be autoclave steam sterilized in between uses. If you get your ears pierced with a sterile piercing needle instead of a piercing gun, the healing process will be faster and smoother, and you’ll be much less likely to develop an ear piercing infection.
You can learn how to properly care for new earlobe piercings and cartilage piercings by reading our Ear Piercing Aftercare article. Once your new piercings have fully healed, which typically takes 4-6 weeks for earlobe piercings and 3+ months for cartilage piercings, be sure to check out our extensive selection of earrings, cartilage jewelry, plugs, tunnels, captive rings, and other styles of ear piercing jewelry.
“Ear Piercing History” Section of History of Body Piercings Article on PainfulPleasures.com
Earring Article on Wikipedia.org
When Did People First Start Piercing Their Ears? Article on Psjewelers.blogspot.com
Girls vs. Guys: Who Gets Which Piercings Where? Blog Post on PainfulPleasures.com
Jewels & Women: The Romance, Magic and Art of Feminine Adornment. Marianne Ostier. Horizon Press. New York, 1958.