History of Body Piercings | Painful Pleasures Community

History of Body Piercings

Learn brief histories on some of the most popular piercings you can get. Explore the piercing traditions of Ancient Rome, indigenous tribes, and pop culture artists.

by Emily Starkman Last Updated: December 16, 2021

Piercings may have only become widely popular in mainstream culture in recent years, but the practice of body piercing is far from new. Piercing dates back to Biblical times and earlier. Read on to find out when specific types of piercings were first recorded and how their popularity has evolved over the years since.Female with nose and dermal piercings by Arseniy Andersson















Nose Piercing History

Girl with nostril piercing and PainfulPleasures blue overlayThe nose is the face’s most prominent feature; as Leonardo Da Vinci said, it sets the character for the whole face. It’s no surprise then that a nose piercing can positively accentuate one’s face.

The history of nose piercing dates back to ancient times; it was first recorded in the Middle East aproximately 4,000 years ago. It’s also mentioned in the Bible in Genesis 24:22, where it’s recorded that Abraham asked his oldest servant to find a wife for his son, Isaac. The servant found Rebekah, and one of the gifts he gave her was a “golden earring”. The original Hebrew word used was Shanf, which translates to “nose ring.”

The practice of nose piercing is still followed among the nomadic Berber and Beja tribes of Africa and the Bedouins of the Middle East. The size of the ring gifted denotes a family’s wealth. It’s given by a husband to his wife when they marry, and it represents financial security for her in the event that she and her husband are divorced. Man with nostril piercing and PainfulPleasures blue overlay

In the 16th century, nose piercing was bought to India from the Middle East by the Mughal emperors. In India, a stud (called a “Phul”) or a ring (i.e. “Nath”) is usually worn in the left nostril, although both nostrils are pierced in some areas. The reason the left nostril is more commonly pierced is due to that spot being associated with female reproductive organs in Ayurveda (i.e. Indian medicine); the piercing is supposed to make childbirth easier and lessen period pain. An Indian woman’s nose piercing is sometimes joined to her ear by a chain.

In the west, nose piercing first appeared among the hippies who had traveled to India in the late 1960s. In the 1970s, the practice of nose piercing was adopted by the Punk movement as a symbol of rebellion against conservative values. Conservative-minded people — particularly parents and employers — sometimes don’t react well to nose piercings, so consider your career path before having it done.

Nowadays, nose piercing is gradually becoming more socially acceptable. Many celebrities have their noses pierced: for instance, Madonna, Lenny Kravitz, Sinead O’Connor, and Slash from Guns & Roses. More and more, you’ll see everyday people sporting little jeweled nostril studs and fine hoops, too, including professionals in a variety of settings ranging from retail outlets to doctor’s offices.

Tongue Piercing HistoryTraditional tongue piercing with captive bead ring

Tongue piercing was practiced in a ritual form by the ancient Aztecs, the Maya of Central America, and the Haida, Kwakiutul, and Tlinglit tribes of the American Northwest. The tongue was pierced to draw blood to propitiate the gods and to create an altered state of consciousness so that the priest or shaman could communicate with the gods.

Tongue piercing is now one of the most popular piercings. It’s shocking, provocative, and stimulating; but at the same time, no one need know you have it. Janet Jackson, Keith Flint from Prodigy, Mel B. from the Spice Girls, and Malcolm Jamahl Warner from the Cosby show all sport pierced tongues and tongue jewelry.

Ear Piercing History

French hook earring with rose quartz and amethyst stoneIt’s commonly thought that in the history of body piercings, earlobe piercings were probably one of the first piercings man attempted. What evidence is there to support that theory? In 1991, the oldest mummified body in the world, Ötzi the Iceman, was found frozen in an Austrian Glacier; tests showed the body to be over 5,000 years old. The body had pierced ears, and the holes had been enlarged to 7–11mm diameter.

Ears were probably first pierced for magical purposes. Many primitive tribes believe that demons can enter the body through the ear; ear piercing could prevent that from happening, because demons and spirits are supposed to be repelled by metal. Sailors used to have an ear pierced due to the superstitious belief that doing so would improve their eyesight, keeping them safer at sea. Additionally, if a sailor’s body washed up on shore somewhere, a single earring could pay for a Christian burial. To this day, ear piercing is done as a puberty ritual in many societies. In Borneo, a mother and father each pierce one of their child’s ears to symbolize the child’s dependence on his or her parents. Even in the US, it isn’t uncommon for parents to pierce their little girls’ earlobes.

Ear piercing isn’t just for girls; it’s an almost universal practice for men and women alike. It’s only in western society that it has been deemed effeminate, although that prejudice has diminished in recent years, and rightly so. At various times in history, great men wore elaborate earrings. For instance, during the Elizabethan era, many famous men such as Shakespeare, Sir Walter Raleigh and Francis Drake wore gold rings in their ears. The practice for men of status to wear earrings goes back even further than that. “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.”1

Labret/Lip Piercing HistoryModel with stretched ears, nostril piercing, and lip piercings

Piercing lips so objects can be inserted in them is widely practiced throughout the world, although lip piercing history is richest in tribal cultures. Only two tribes pierce the lips with a ring: the Dogon tribe of Mali and the Nuba of Ethiopia. Among the Dogon, lip piercing has religious significance; they believe the world was created by their ancestor spirit “Noomi” weaving thread through her teeth, but instead of thread, out came speech. All the other lip piercing that is practiced around the world is done with labrets, which can be made from a pin of wood, ivory, metal, or even quartz crystals. Among the tribes of Central Africa and South America, the labret piercing is stretched to extremely large proportions, and large wooden or clay plates are inserted in place of labret pins over time.

Among the ancient Aztecs and Maya, labret piercing (i.e. “Tentetl” to the Aztecs) was reserved for male members of the higher castes, who wore beautiful labrets fashioned from pure gold to look like serpents, golden labrets with stones inset in them, and labret jewelry made of jade or obsidian. The Native Americans of the Pacific Northwest and the Inuit peoples of northern Canada and Alaska wore labrets fashioned from walrus ivory, abalone shell, bone, obsidian, and wood.

The Makololo tribe of Malawi wear lip plates called Pelele in the upper lip. The African explorer Dr. Livingstone asked a chief the reason for this; in surprise, the chief answered “For beauty! They are the only beautiful things women have. Men have beards, women have none. What kind of person would she be without Pelele? She would not be a woman at all.”

“The plug of wood in the lips, which became little by little a disk, and then a real plaque, was in some manner a sign of possession of the husband of the Djinja woman. It is the man who is to marry her, and very often him alone who operates, transfixing the lips of the young girl with a blade of straw forms the first sign of the deformation to which she will be subject as an adult. It is in sum, a betrothal rite.”2

Septum Piercing HistoryStandard septum piercing process

Septum piercing is probably the second most common type of piercing among primitive peoples after ear piercing; it’s even more common than nostril piercing. The practice of septum piercing is likely as popular as it is for the same reasons as nostril piercing, with the added attraction that the piercing can be stretched so that large-gauge jewelry can be inserted; this jewelry is made from a wide variety of materials — for instance, pigs’ tusks, bone, feather, wood, and other natural materials.

Septum piercing is particularly prevalent among warrior cultures, most likely due to the fact that a warrior with a large tusk through the septum looks especially fierce. The use of septum tusks is very prevalent in Irian Jaya, New Guinea and the Solomon Islands, with pigs’ tusks being the most popular material used as septum jewelry. Among the Asmat tribe of Irian Jaya, the most prestigious septum tusk is the “Otsj,” which is a large bone plug that can be as thick as 25mm in diameter. Otsj are usually made from the leg bones of pigs, but occasionally they are made from the tibia bones of enemies slain in battle. Model with gold septum ring

Septum piercings were a beloved tradition of the Aztecs, Maya and Incas in particular. They wore a variety of jewelry in their pierced septums, but jade and gold were the most popular materials because of their religious connotations. The modern day Cuna Indians of Panama continue this practice by wearing thick, pure gold rings in their septums.

This type of piercing is also popular in India, Nepal, and Tibet, where a pendant “Bulak” is worn. Some septum jewelry found in these cultures is so large that it prevents the wearer from being able to eat without manually lifting the jewelry during meals. In Rajasthan in Himachal Pradesh, Bulak are particularly elaborate and extremely large.

Septum piercing was widely practiced by many North American Indian tribes. The name of the Nez Perc tribe of Washington state stems from their practice of piercing the septum. “Nez Perc” is French for “nose pierced”, and it was given to the tribe by French fur traders.

Australian aboriginals pierced the septum with the goal of flattening the nose. They passed a long stick or bone through the piercing to achieve the desired effect because they believed a flat nose to be the most desirable-looking.

The age at which septum piercing is done varies greatly between different tribes. Among the Bundi tribe of the Bismarck Ranges of Papua, New Guinea, septum piercing is performed using the thin end of a sweet potato plant (“Ogai Iriva”), usually between the ages of 18 and 22.3 However, some tribes perform the rite on children as young as age 9–10.

“You were lost in the bush and now you have come back. You have come back mature; you are men. When you return to your hamlet many girls will come after you. But if you have lived well, and if they come after you, all the well. You will now have your noses pierced to allow you to sing with girls and lead a life like that of your elders. Your (Kangi Poroi) caused you to go to all this trouble, now it will be over.”4

Navel Piercing HistoryBelly button ring with chains on fake navel

Navel piercing is a modern invention and has never been recorded in primitive cultures. However, the navel has long been recognized as an erogenous zone, because of the difference between men’s and women’s stomachs. Women’s stomachs differ from men’s in that they are more rounded in the lower part, are longer than men’s, have a greater distance between the navel and genitals, and are more deeply recessed than men’s. These features are often exaggerated by artists to make women appear more feminine in paintings.

The invention of the Bikini in 1953 caused a big stir because the navel was seen as being sexually provocative due to its similarity to the female genitals. The Bikini revolutionized women’s lives. Along with the liberation of their clothes, their lives in general became more liberated. The process was completed when Madonna started the craze for showing off the midriff in the 1980s. The ability to flaunt their sexuality in public gave women more power and confidence in themselves.

Pierced navel ring with PainfulPleasures blue overlayIn September 1994, Suzy Menkes of the New York Times said, “It is easy to pinpoint the moment when body piercing went mainstream. Christy Turlington came out at a London Fashion show sporting a navel ring. The next day, Naomi Campbell showed the world that anything Christy could do, so could she. A gold ring with a small pearl pierced her navel. And then at Isaac Mizrahi’s show, the two came out together, navels bared and be-ringed: body piercing as a Supermodel totem.”

Naomi Campbell said, “I like it, I think it’s fun!” Christy Turlington was quoted as saying, “I always thought it was a pretty feminine thing to do — and you can always take it out.”

Years before Christy and Naomi’s fateful pierced-navel-baring runway walks, Madonna was quoted as saying, “I have the most perfect belly button — an inny. When I stick my finger in my belly button, I feel a nerve in the center of my body shoot up my spine” in a 1985 Time Magazine interview. So it was no surprise when Madonna got her navel pierced shortly after Naomi and Christy, followed closely by Cher and Janet Jackson. Now anybody can joins the ranks of celebrities and supermodels and have their belly buttons pierced, too — and so many have in the years since!

Nipple Piercing History

Man with pierced nipples, chest tattoo, and PainfulPleasures blue overlayAt what point did nipple piercing work its way into body piercing history? It’s well known that Roman Centurions wore fitted leather armor breast plates that sometimes had rings placed where the nipples appeared to be, so that a cape slung over the shoulders could be attached to the rings. That practice led some people to say that those same soldiers had their actual nipples pierced, too, so that they could secure a cape even when not wearing their armor. However, anybody who has had their nipples pierced would tell you that this would be a very uncomfortable practice. So if it didn’t begin with Roman Centurions, what did start the practice of nipple piercing?

“In the middle of the 14th century… Many women suddenly wore ‘such low necklines that you could see nearly half their breasts,’ and among the upper classes in the same century, Queen Isabella of Bavaria introduced the “Garments of the grand neckline,” where the dress was open to the navel. This fashion eventually led to the application of rouge to freely-displayed nipples, those “little apples of paradise,” and to placing diamond studded rings or small caps on them, even to piercing them and passing gold chains through them decorated with diamonds.”5

In the late 1890s, the “Bosom Ring” came into fashion briefly; they were sold in expensive Parisian jewelry shops. These ‘Anneux De Sein’ were inserted through the nipple, and some women wore one in each nipple and linked them with a delicate chain. “The rings enlarged the nipples and kept them in a state of constant excitation… the medical community was outraged by these cosmetic procedures, for they represented a rejection of traditional conceptions of the purpose of a woman’s body.”6  One London socialite detailed her opinion of this fashion craze in an 1890 issue of VogueNipple jewelry with tiered chains

“For a long time I could not understand why I should consent to such a painful operation without sufficient reason. I soon, however, came to the conclusion that many ladies are ready to bear the passing pain for the sake of love. I found that the breasts of those who wore rings were incomparably rounder and fuller developed than those who did not. My doubts were now at an end…so I had my nipples pierced, and when the wounds were healed, I had rings inserted… with regard to the experience of wearing these rings, I can only say that they are not in the least uncomfortable or painful. On the contrary, the slight rubbing and slipping of the rings causes in me an extremely titillating feeling, and all my colleagues I have spoken to on this subject have confirmed my opinion.”

Nipple piercing was also known to be practiced by the Karankawa Indians of Texas, and it is still practiced in the Mountains of Algeria, by women of the nomadic Kabyle tribe. In the west, nipple piercing has made a resurgence, with many famous people having their nipples pierced — for instance, Lenny Kravitz, Jaye Davidson (The Crying Game), Gerry Connelly (Comedian), Tommy Lee (Drummer for Motley Crue & Husband of Baywatch’s Pamela Anderson), and Axl Rose (Guns & Roses).

Benefits of Nipple Piercing: The benefits of nipple piercings are the same today as they were for the fashionable ladies of Paris and London in the 1890s. It makes the nipples larger, more sensitive, and more sexually attractive, and it provides constant stimulation. One man described his nipple piercings as “a light switch for an erection.” Nipple piercing is very effective for increasing the size of small nipples (especially men’s) and can prevent nipples from becoming inverted. In Victorian England, doctors often recommended nipple piercing to increase the size of the nipples and make breastfeeding easier. Plus, nipple piercings can provide greater sexual pleasure by giving your partner something to play with during sex — particularly if touching your nipple piercings heightens your state of arousal, too, further stimulating your partner.

Clitoral Hood Piercing History

Although the origination of clitoral hood piercings isn’t clearly known, the clitoris was first identified by the ancient Greeks over 2,500 years ago. They used the word Kleitoris to describe a part of the female genitals, most probably the Labia Minora or inner lips of the vagina.

In 1593, at the trial of a woman accused of witchcraft, the inquisitor (a married man) discovered a clitoris for the first time. When he saw this “little lump of flesh sticking out to the length of half an inch,” he decided that it must be the “Devil’s Teat.” The other inquisitors, likewise astounded, agreed with him, and on this fact alone, the woman was convicted and executed for witchcraft.

The word “clitoris” first appeared in the English language in 1615; it was used in an early anatomy book to describe a small, sensitive organ located underneath the upper apex of the Labia Minora. At some point thereafter, perhaps around the same time that the sexual benefits of nipple piercings were discovered in the 1800s, someone began experimenting with clitoral piercings and soon discovered that the clitoral hood was the safest area around the clitoris to pierce to increase sexual sensitivity without damaging the clitoris.

Display of Prince Albert wands and other PA jewelry

Prince Albert (PA) Piercing History

The Prince Albert piercing is named after Prince Albert, who was the husband of Queen Victoria of England. He was reputed to have had this piercing done prior to his marriage to the queen around 1825. At that time, Beau Brummel started the craze for ultra tight men’s trousers. Because the pants were so tight, the penis needed to be held to one side or the other so as not to create an unsightly bulge. To accomplish this, some men had their penis pierced to allow it to be held by a hook on the inside of the trousers. This piercing was called a “Dressing Ring” at the time, because tailors would ask if a gentleman dressed to the left or the right and tailor the trousers accordingly. To this day, tailors will ask if you dress to the left or right, all because of the dressing rings that were named after Prince Albert!

PA Piercings and Sexuality: The Prince Albert Piercing is known for providing added stimulation to both partners during intercourse. It is said to be more effective in doing so than other genital piercings available to men.

Fraenulum Piercing History

The piercing of the Fraenulum is probably the second-most popular male genital piercing. It’s often referred to as a “Frenum” piercing, but this is an abbreviated version of the true word Fraenulum. The Fraenulum is the small ridge of flesh joining the foreskin to the glans of the penis. In most cases, circumcision removes or destroys it. However, in rare cases it still exists after circumcision. We could only find one account of it occurring among tribal people:

“Among the Timorese of Indonesia, the Fraenulum beneath the glans penis is pierced with brass rings, the function of the ring is to enhance stimulation during sex.”7

Foreskin Piercings (Kuno) History

The practice of piercing of the foreskin for the insertion of jewelry is as old as circumcision; it’s of immemorial antiquity, going back far beyond the earliest recorded history.

During the games of Ancient Greece, the athletes performed nude, and to prevent their penises moving about, they bound the foreskin with a ribbon and tied it to the base of the penis. This ribbon, or leather thong, was called the “Kynodesme” from the Greek “Kuon” (foreskin) and “Desmos” (fastening band). This temporary practice probably led to the permanent piercing of the foreskin, either to prevent slaves and athletes from having sex or keep them from having erections. The Romans used a practice called Infibulation, which involved two piercings going through the foreskin (or labia in women) and a lock (fibula) being placed therein.

The Roman historian Mensius declares that Infibulation may be traced back to the time of the siege of Troy (12th Century BC), for he points out that according to “The Odyssey” (Bk. VIII, Line 477) Agamemnon departed for the Trojan War and left his wife Clytemnestra, in the care of the singer Demodecus, seeing that he had been infibulated.

The prevalence of the practice is attested to by the number of references to it found in ancient writings. The roman writers Juvenal, Martial, Strabo, Fallopio, and Hieronymus Mercurialis all make mention of the practice. The kuno piercing process is described in detail by the famous 1st Century Roman physician Celsus, in his treatise on medicine “De Medecina”.

Palang & Apadravya Piercing History

The piercing of the glans of the penis for the insertion of jewelry is a very ancient practice. the Apadravya piercing is mentioned in the Kama Sutra (700 AD) and the Palang piercing has been practiced in Southeast Asia for several hundred years. Several genital piercings originate in Asia, where piercing has been practiced since antiquity.

The following quote from “The Kama Sutra” describes the process for the piercing of an Apadravya, or a vertical barbell through the glans of the Penis: “The people of the southern countries think that true sexual pleasure cannot be obtained without perforating the Lingam, and they therefore cause it to be pierced like the lobes of the ears of an infant pierced for earrings.”

The Palang (often incorrectly called Ampallang piercing) is a piercing that occurred among the Kayan, Kenyah, Kelabit, Dayak, and Iban tribes of Sarawak on the Island of Borneo. It involves piercing the glans of the penis horizontally and inserting a barbell. The term “Palang” translates as “Crossbar” in Iban and can be related to the timber roof supports of the longhouses of the tribes of the area; it symbolizes the protective power of the male over the family.

“The operation is performed only on adults. The skin is forced back, the penis is placed between two small planks of bamboo for ten days and it is covered with rags dipped in cold water. Then the glans is perforated with a sharp bamboo needle; a feather dipped in oil is placed in the wound until it heals. Wet compresses are used all the while. When the Dayaks travel and work they carry a feather in this canal. As soon as they grow desirous, they pull the feather out and replace it with the ampallang. The ampallang is a little rod of copper, silver or gold, four centimeters long and two millimeters thick. At one end of this rod is a round ball or pear-formed object made of metal; at the other end a second ball is placed as soon as the ampallang is affixed. The whole apparatus is, when ready, five centimeters long and five millimeters thick… Von Graffin has seen one Dayak who had two ampallangs, one behind the other! The perforation was always horizontal and above the urethra… The women of the Dayaks say the embrace without this ornament is like rice, but with it, it tastes like rice with salt.”8

“The function of this device is, superficially, to add to the sexual pleasure of the women by stimulating and extending the inner walls of the vagina. It is, in this, in my experience decidedly successful.”9

Guiche (geesh) Piercing History

A guiche piercing is a piercing of the male perineum, in between the anus and testicles. This piercing is supposed to be a Samoan puberty ritual, but Derek Freeman, Professor Emeritus of the Anthropology Department of The Australian National University, one of the world’s foremost authorities on Samoa, said he had no experience of this practice in Samoa. The puberty ritual practiced in Samoa is subincision, which is where the underneath of the foreskin is cut down to the fraenulum. Professor Freeman stated that the practice of guiche piercing has never existed in Samoa — that if it had in the past, he would have been aware of it.

Doug Malloy Travelled to Tahiti just before WW2, and while there he met an Australian sailor named Reggie Jones who had jumped ship. Reggie told Doug about guiche piercings and performed one on Doug.

Doug Malloy said that this piercing originated in Tahiti. It was typically done between ages 12 and 14, followed by a leather thong, with a small weight (either a rock or a shell) hung from the thong once the piercing was healed. The procedure was performed by a “Mahu”; in Tahiti, a Mahu is a transvestite male who has taken on the role of a woman. They are highly respected members of society, and they are said to possess magical powers by adherents of the ancient Tahitian religion. However, as in Samoa, there is no literature documenting this piercing being performed in Tahiti.

The ancient Polynesian mariners used to judge their direction by the movement of the waves. The best way to gauge that movement was to squat down and feel the movement through the swinging of the testicles. The Raphe Perineum where the Guiche piercing is done contains a large bundle of nerves, and having a weight hanging from a guiche piercing could possibly have helped the ancient mariners derive their direction, but this is only speculation.

Hafada Piercing (i.e. scrotum piercing) History

A Hafada piercing is typically performed on the side of the scrotum, where there is a crease. It is supposed to have originated in Arabia and spread through Northern Africa and the Middle East from there. The piercing is carried out as a puberty ritual; it is generally done on the left-hand side of the scrotum, although modern Hafada piercings may be performed in various places on the scrotum or as a ladder, with several rings in a row. The piercing was supposedly brought back to Europe by French Foreign Legionaries when they were stationed in what is now Lebanon and Syria.

There’s no evidence that scrotum piercings are practiced by any primitive tribes. It’s really a modern western invention. Some people have an incredible number of piercings through their scrotums. Sailor Sid, one of the early piercers, had 120 scrotum piercings at the time of his death, and he planned to have more!


Content paraphrased from the following source: ©Cheyenne Morrison, The Piercing Temple, Australia 98. Expanded with additional information from various sources, including:

1Jewels & Women; The Romance, Magic and Art of Feminine Adornment. Marianne Ostier. Horizon Press. New York, 1958.

2Dr. Muraz reffering to the Saras-Djinjas tribe, who insert lip plates up to 24cm in diameter in both lips. Chari River South of Lake Chad in “Nudity to Raiment”. Hilaire Hiler, London, 1929.

3Field notes of David G. Fitzpatrick 1977 in “Bundi, the culture of Papua New Guinea people”. Ryebuck Publications, Nerang Queensland, Australia, 1983.

4Address by tribal elder to young men undergoing the (Kangi Poroi) manhood ritual.

5“Dreamtime” by Hans Peter Duerr.

6“Anatomy & Destiny” by Stephen Kern.

7Die kunstlichen Verunstaltungen des Korpers bei den Batta. Zeitschrift fur Ethnologie 16:217-225 1884.

8Mantegazza, Sexual Relations of Mankind.

9Tom Harrisson, The Sarawak Museum Journal, Vol VII, December 1956.

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