No matter how small or large, isolated or integrated, culture holds meaning for its participants, brining invaluable richness to their lives. Culture tends to be fluid, slowly changing with time like a landscape. Many tribes worldwide have preserved their traditions, yet we now find even they are becoming touched by the changes they’ve escaped for so long. Obvious culprits such as agriculture, industry, Christianity, politics, and war, have all impeded on these isolated groups, but there is a subtler contributor: the observer.
Just like the shy particle in quantum physics, humans tend to behave differently when observed. Tourism, film crews, documentaries, journalism, and even articles like this one all influence change.
The first things to go usually concern ceremonial traditions such as body modification, circumcision, scarring, dress, etc. These seem to be the first to change are they are relatively simple things to exclude compared to gender roles, religious beliefs, initiation ceremonies, sexual practices and other more ingrained cultural aspects. Also, when mutilation and/or children are involved, the government of the surrounding country will often intervene.
I want to explore a range of tribal cultures that have practiced ear gauging, their overlapping reasons for doing so, and whether the practice continues to be strong today. One of the most interesting aspects of the ear gauging type of body mod is that while it’s dying out in many tribal societies, it’s being picked up on a mass scale in the west.
Masai/Maasai tribes of Kenya
The Masai tribes of Kenya have a rich history: an epic migration from Ethiopia, countless battles, and near extinction by drought and disease. Today they live around government protected game reserves in the Kajiado and Narok districts, where they deal with new laws, border changes and increasing tourism.
One of the most intriguing things about the Masai is their relationship with their cattle. They depend on their cattle for food, clothing, prosperity and status. They die for their cattle and they wish each others’ cattle well instead of a “how are you”. Violent raids on neighboring tribes and the theft of cattle is not simply a right of passage for the Masai, but a justified and holy act since they believe that God created cattle solely for them.
The Maasai’s gender roles are very distinct. The men build sheds and fences for the cattle, protect livestock, hunt, and of course, gain different levels of warrior status to impress the ladies. The women milk the cattle, do beading, create clothing, take care of children, clean, and build circular homes out of mud and grass.
The similarities between their gender roles begin at beauty. Both men and women see beauty an important, even ritualistic part of their lives. Extravagant ornaments, bangles, and beads are worn by both sexes. Men and women participate in ritual head shaving, wear similar vibrant garb, and stretch their earlobes.
Ear stretching has been with the tribe for thousands of years. Different stretching methods have been documented, from using weight to elongate the lobes, to stretching with increasingly larger pieces of tusk, wood, stone, thorn, and even film canister. The older tribe members tend to have larger spaced lobes as they get weighed down and more stretched over the years. Stretched lobes are often decorated with gorgeous beadwork, matching the beadery style of their cartilage piercing.
Other practices like circumcision and killing lions have been frowned upon by the surrounding government, and begun to decline. Growing tourism has created a healthy impact of the Masai way of life, some would say exploiting their culture for a buck (according to some reports, the Musai profit little from this as the tourism fees rarely make it into their hands). Of course it’s hard to measure the precise impact of groups of westerners visiting to see the tribe dance, but such directness does influence how we view the Masai and more importantly, how new generations of Masai view themselves. It will be interesting and perhaps sad to see how current influences and observers continue to take a toll on the Masai considering just a decade ago things were quite different.Although ear gauging is traditionally a unisex practice amongst the Masai, it’s becoming rare amongst the male population. Perhaps it has become viewed more as a feminine feature of beauty, which is ironic as the complete opposite is happening in western tradition.
Huaorani tribes of the Amazon
The Huaorani (also known as the Waos) have a bloody reputation that touches their own people as well as westerners. They are warriors that identify with strong animals; one of their myths describes their ancestry tracing back to the mating of a jaguar and an eagle.
Conflicts over territory are normal between tribes and revenge is often generational. Their choice of weapon are long spears, carved to have jagged barbs at one end. Being speared by a Huaorani is usually fatal because the barbs make removing the weapon from ones body a painful, flesh ripping act, that causes further damage. Interestingly, some of the most violent years for the Haurani coincided with World War 2. Clan relations degenerated and murder became responsible for 60% of Huaorani deaths. But their violent reputation rarely comes through when visited by tourists and anthropologists. Many report the Huaorani being cheerful, warm and happy.
To hunt the Huaorani use poisonous dart arrows that paralyze their prey. The toxin used is called “curare” and is derived from a plant. It causes asphyxiation as the animal’s entire body becomes paralyzed. The Huaorani never hunt the jaguar or snake. Snakes are considered evil, with the anaconda being the most fearsome. They believe that once the body dies, the spirit is met by the anaconda on its way to the afterlife. If the spirit is brave, it will leap over the snake and continue on its path. If not, it will be sent back to live as a termite.
Living in the Amazon Rainforest, the Huaorani are exposed to one of the most biodiverse regions on the planet. They are in-tune with nature and have vast knowledge of their surroundings, plants and animals. Unlike their neighbours the Kichwas, they consider men and women equal. They still have male and female roles, but both are given equal weight in decision making. Wives are allowed to leave their husbands and Huaorani women are independent and strong.
Unlike other Amazonian tribes, the Huaorani tend to have few children. They say that they limit their reproduction because the resources available to sustain them are limited. Using natural birth control methods and special teas, the Huaorani generally have two to three children. Marriage can be arranged between cousins or members of neighbouring tribes, and men are allowed multiple wives. Sometimes when a man has no available cousins to marry, he will kill a rival and steal his wife.
Both men and women begin spacing their ears during childhood, but like the Masai, the new generations are discontinuing this practice. Ear piercing is done with a spine from the trunk of a tree. The lobe is then gradually stretched with pieces of wood. They wear large plugs made of stone or wood until they become much older, at which point they leave their lobes without decoration. Other beauty practices include removing all body hair for the women, and shortly cut hair above the eyes for both genders.
Unfortunately the Huaorani have been deeply affected by the presence of western religion, logging, poaching and industrialization. Living in the Amazon Rainforest, they occupy land that’s rich in oil. They’ve lived on land between the Curaray and Napo rivers since the time of their ancestors, and are now forced to share it with hundreds of kilometers of oil pipeline. Now the Haurani reside on just under 7,000 km of land.
Some Huaorani communities have chosen to reject all contact with the outside world, moving deeper into the jungle. Other communities responded violently to missionaries and oil workers on their land. But some have been converted to a more modern lifestyle. Many Huaorani children now attend local schools, and full tribes have begun wearing western clothing. There are even Huaorani that work for tourist companies, and the very oil companies that have contributed to the destruction of their land.
If you’re curious to know more about the Huaorani, check out this short documentary! For more photos of the Huaorani click here!
To be continued with the the Mursi, Hmong People, and more.
For a general history of ear stretching, check out “A Fleshed Out History of Ear Stretching”.