The ear lobe is probably one of the first parts of the body to be pierced, presumably due to the ease of doing so and also due to the prominence of this appendage.
Body piercings may have originated in a notion that it might confer magical powers, even protection. One belief, held by primitive tribal cultures, is that demons access the body by entering the ear canal. Another belief is that metals repel demons. Thus placing a piece of metal on the ear lobe may be a strong signal to ward off ill-intentioned spirits. This theory is questionable, however, since bone and plant-based materials appear to have been the first items used to decorate the ears, not metal.
One of the oldest mummified bodies ever found to date, and believed to be at least 5,000 years old, had clearly pierced ear lobes. In fact, the holes were much larger than what we see today for a typical post earring.
While in western culture we still struggle with the idea of ear ornamentation for men, in many cultures ear piercing is as common for men as it is for women. In most cases, this is because the earring in those cultures is strongly associated with traditional beliefs. In America, the jewelry we adorn is predominantly ornamental or it represents a sentimental connection.
Throughout history, men have worn earrings that were just as elaborate as what a woman might wear. We brushed on this a while back in the article titled William Shakespeare’s Earring. Francis Drake and Sir Walter Raleigh also wore gold rings in their ears.
In America, we are familiar with the customs of teenagers for whom piercings are at once a rite of passage and a symbolic rejection of social rules. In some cultures, parents each wear one earring as a symbol of their child’s dependence on them. Such is the case for those among the people of Borneo who still honor old traditions.
The septum (middle of the nose) has been commonly used for piercing by primitive cultures for thousands of years. It is especially prevalent in warrior cultures, where the physiognomy of the face plays an important role in expressing status and also in how the warrior appears to other tribes and beings.
Nose piercing is mentioned in the Bible. In fact, it is mentioned in Middle Eastern documents dating back about 4,000 years. In Genesis, Abraham calls upon one of his servants to seek a wife for his son. As was the tradition at the time, a gift was offered to the wife-to-be. The Hebrew word to describe this gift is shanf, which is translated to earring in some versions though scholars argue that it is more accurately translated as “nose-ring.”
Nose piercing is fairly recent here in America. It became fashionable amongst a specific group of individuals in the late 60’s: the Hippies. It is said that they brought the custom back from India, where they traveled in great numbers, seeking enlightenment. The movement inspired ever-changing means of expressing rebellion (gentle or otherwise) and freedom. It influenced other groups well into the 70’s and 80’s. The Punks, among others, adopted body piercing as a very significant expression of their ideology.
Meanwhile, the significance of nose piercing in deeply traditional tribal cultures, such as the Bedouins of the Middle East, for example, retains the same symbolism today as it did generations ago. In this culture, a nose ring is offered to a wife in marriage. It denotes wealth and serves as security in the event she becomes single or widowed.
Even from this brief overview, it would appear that our practice of body piercing spans from both traditional and ideological beliefs. In addition to this, we borrow from other cultures, even without knowing the full significance of this. In America, for example, we emulate the Native American culture. We adopt certain practices because they “speak” to us somehow. Perhaps we sense something, even without knowing the full ramification and significance of the jewelry or practices we adopt.
There is much material here for many more discussions. As for the piercing of other areas of the body… I’ll leave it up to the reader to do their own research, thank you very much!