Intrinsic repetition of human cultural norms never fails to make me stop and look twice. During centuries too long ago for most people to care about, seeds of modern trends were planted, and continue to grow and permeate societies worldwide. The practice of stretching ones earlobes is certainly not new, and has come a long way in its meaning.
Body modification in general used to be a cultural practice, done because of ones social status, expectations of beauty, religion, or for traditional & ceremonial purposes. Westernized practice of ear gauging has become wholly about the individual, a way to wear your personality on your sleeve, as well as just for the fun of it. This makes sense as we have entered a global culture, which in many ways means no culture at all; therefore our motivations have become independent of forces that once used to rule us.
I want to take a look at cultures and individuals that used earlobe stretching before it became the inviting individualistic practice of today. I write this not only because of the inherent fascinating nature of body mods, but to say “thank you for influencing what we do today; I love my stretched lobes and all the sweet jewelry I can stick in them.”
I start with Ötzi the Ice Man due to the mere age of the trendsetter. He dates back to 3300BC, found by German tourists in 1991 in the Italian Apls. He is currently the oldest human mummy. His body is a canvas for several tattoos found on his back, ankles and knees. Ötzi’s ears are stretched 7mm-11mm in diameter (that’s 0g and up). Before the Iceman, the oldest human known to have spaced ears was a 5,000 year old Egyptian mummy; you can clearly see the large holes remaining from the modification in this video. Ear stretching was also practiced by nobler mummies such a King Tutankhamen. Masks and statues of the boy king show his earlobes spaced; his lavish 10mm gauge spacers were also discovered.
The Egyptians were not the only people whose sculptures accurately reflected their peoples’ body mods. The Moai statutes on Easter Island – or Rapa Nui by its traditional name – were carved around 1100 CE and display long ears with stretched lobes. There is a belief that this isolated island was inhabited by two kinds of people: the ‘Long Ears’ and the ‘Short Ears.’ The Long Ears enslaved the Short Ears and forced them to carve hundreds of statues. Eventually the Short Ears got fed up and killed all the Long Ears, leaving behind close to 1000 stone Moai that have mystified generations.
Statues of Guatama Buddah or Siddhartha Gautama (depending which region you’re from) also show large, often droopy spaced ears. The story goes that Buddha was of noble birth and was known as “Prince Siddhartha” growing up in Nepal. When he was a baby, a holy man prophesized that he was either to become a conqueror or a spiritual leader. His father preferred the first option. He kept his son away from regular people and religion, occupying his mind with indulgences. At the time it was fashionable for men to wear large ornaments in their ears. The practice was directly linked with status so Prince Siddhartha flaunted his wealth by wearing heavy gold earrings which eventually stretched out his lobes. But Prince Siddhartha was not destined for a life of luxury. He caught a glimpse of the suffering contained in the real world and renounced his wealth and status, eventually becoming Buddah under a fig tree. He remains to be carved with stretched earlobes as a reminder of his past.
Some civilizations were nice enough to leave us their tunnels (although not nearly enough considering their rich 3,000 year existence). The Maya were a sophisticated Mesoamerican culture who sported ‘ear spools,’ ‘ear flares,’ or flesh tunnels by today’s definition. They were made of jade, alabaster, gold, ceramic and other precious materials which made them prime targets for grave robbers. Sculptures and paintings of Mayan Shaman often depict them in a ceremony, wearing large jade spacers; perhaps the Mayas used their spacers as a way to invite spirits into their body. Mayan kings tended to wear gold discs in their ears maybe as a way to honor the sun and Corn God. Similar artifacts have been found in Costa Rica, surprising archeologists by their large dimensions.
I end with the Inca nobleman from Peru, who wore discs of precious metals as large as 2 inches. Their ornate masks reflected this practice, as did the nickname ‘big ears’ given to them by the Spanish.
The history of ear stretching is rich. Highlighting just a few stories of the ancient cultures and individuals who practiced ear stretching can give us a new perspective about its popularity today. By studying our past, we may glimpse into the motivations of our “big eared” predecessors and how they differed from what drives us to indulge in this painful procedure today.
Photograph by: Yoshii Yutaka
For a history and current cultural practices of ear stretching amongst tribes, check out Ear Stretching Amongst Tribes.