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A History Of Ear Gauging In Different Cultures


Through studying the history of ear gauging in different cultures and civilizations worldwide, it has been concluded that the practice is at least as old as recorded history, and likely much older. Mummies, statues, old drawings and prehistoric paintings have suggested that ear gauging has been used as a sign of maturity in both men and women, and also of status, particularly with men. It has also been used cosmetically, largely by women.

Ear gauging is a way of stretching the piercing of an earlobe to larger diameters. These diameters can be a lot more than the original piercing, and go up to over an inch and more. It is usually carried out as a fashion statement, and to show that the recipient is 'cool'. It cannot be described as 'modern', because King Tut had his ears stretched, as did Otzi the Iceman - way back in 3300 BC!

Many men have had their ears stretched to indicate their virility and sexual capabilities, although this is not as much a reason today as it was many years ago. Today, men have their ears stretched to make a fashion statement, or to follow the example of their favourite pop group. Thousands of years ago, however, the main purpose is believed to be to make a statement, not of fashion, but of stature in the tribe.

Chiefs had the largest stretching, while other male tribe members also used the size of their gauged ears to indicate their standing in the community. For women, this was often a means of adornment but also of signifying their womanhood, having started menstruation.

Why do people gauge earlobes today, and what benefits do they believe they get by doing so? Here is some information on how other communities regard earlobe gauging in today's world.

A. Women of the Mursi People

The Mursi tribe live in Ethiopia, in the lower valley of the Omo River. After puberty, and once they reach about 15 to 18 years of age, their family - generally their mothers - will pierce their bottom lip (and sometimes also the top) and insert a wooden peg. This peg will regularly changed with a larger one until it reaches around 2 inches (4-5 cm) when it will be replaced with a wooden or ceramic plate.

This continues until it is felt the plate is large enough - from around 8 cm to over 22 cm (3 inches to over 9 inches in diameter). These young women will also have their ears pierced and then stretched until the gauge of their earlobes is considered acceptable for the tribe or community.

The young women that have undergone this ordeal are then known as Bhansanai, as described earlier, and are regarded with more respect within their community. The ear gauge discs and lip plugs should be worn at specific ceremonial occasions (weddings, serving food and others). The custom is no longer obligatory, and young Mursi women now have the choice whether to follow the tradition or not.

B. Ear Gauging Among the Masai

Although ear gauging has been customary among men and women of the Masai tribe in Kenya, young men have been increasingly reluctant to adopt the practice. Many women, however, still regard gauged ears as giving her status within her tribe, and will submit to piercing at an early age, using thorns, sharpened sticks or even sharp animal bones.

Ear gauging can then be carried out the traditional way or the modern way, both being used today in Kenya. Traditionally, the fistula is stretched by wearing heavy jewellery made of stones or heavy beads. The weight stretches the piercing, with the result that the gauge will increase with age. A typical Kenyan woman's earlobe will have a long gauge rather than a neat round hole.

Modern methods can also be used, such as insertion tapers that progressively increase the gauging diameter with each size of taper. The type of plugs and decoration used can range from cross-cut elephant tusks and animal bones or horns, to decorative stones, wooden plugs and beaded items.

C. The Nigerian and Central African Fulani Tribe

Ear gauging is common among Fulani women, although the gauge tends to be higher than that of other African peoples. The higher gauge, of course, means a smaller diameter hole, and the gauging of the Fulani women are often fitted with hoops rather than proper plugs or flesh tunnels. These hoops are then used to hang earrings and other forms of ear decoration and jewellery. Another form of jewellery used by the Fulani are massive golden domes fitted into the gauged piercing.