What does Brandon Boyd, the lead singer of the musical group "Incubus," have in common with the earliest mummified corpse uncovered by humans? Both have stretched or "gauged" ear lobes, a look developed by piercing a hole in the skin and stretching it over time by inserting progressively larger discs made from metal, wood or plastic. Historians believe humans in the 5,000-year-old mummies' time thought that demons entered earthly bodies through the ear, and that placing metal inside the ear lobe would ward them off. Today, many African tribes display expressive body piercings as part of their way of life for spiritual and societal reasons.
Piercings as Art Form
In preserving their ancient cultures and belief systems, many African tribes have continued practices of piercing their bodies that originated thousands of years ago. Piercings throughout Africa denote pride, beauty and wealth. The African Conservancy's website states, "African body art changes the wearer into an object shaped by colour, movement, textures, patterns and designs." In contrast with western beliefs about the taboo nature of body piercings, many tribal Africans believe that puncturing and even stretching builds character, discipline and strength.
The Massai people, an ethnic tribe living in present day Kenya and Tanzania, historically migrated from North Africa and once ruled much of the continent. Through disease, famine and an influx of tourism, the Massai have preserved their original cultural beliefs and practices, including ritualistic ear lobe piercing and stretching. Both men and women stretch their ear lobes with hollow discs, and hang intricately beaded jewellery from the holes created through stretching. During traditional Massai dances and ceremonies, including circumcision for both men and women, the person being honoured dresses in extensive body jewellery.
Noted by "National Geographic" as a popular draw to tourists, the culturally rich Mursi tribe, living in southern Ethiopia is known for its women wearing the lip plates to display beauty and individuality. The lip plate is a large disc made from pottery or wood and worn in a woman's bottom lip that can reach up to 12 centimetres in diameter. At the age of 15 or 16, each Mursi girl has her lip cut by her mother or another woman of the tribe. The women fill the cut with a wooden plug until it heals, and then stretch the opening by adding larger plates over a series of months.
In the Christian Bible's book of Genesis, Abraham provides a "golden earring" to the woman, Rebecca, who marries his son, Isaac. The word used in the verse to describe the gift is "Shanf," which translates to "nose ring" in Hebrew. In reference to this verse, men of the nomadic Berber and Beja tribes, living in the Sahara and the Sudan respectively, present their wives with wedding rings that are worn in the nose. A large nose ring worn by a woman symbolises a wealthy husband to those who see her. If a woman separates from her husband, the nose ring is hers to sell or barter for security.