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History of Ear Gauging in Tribal Civilizations
A study of the history of ear measurement indicates that the practice is as old as recorded human history. For men, this form of ear piercing was a status symbol, while for women, in addition to being used as body decoration, it was also used to denote femininity.
Ear sizing, also called ear stretching, is the stretching of the earlobe piercing to larger diameters than the original piercing. It is a form of body enhancement or beautification that many young Western people adopt to look ‘different’ from the usual crowd. However, this is not a modern form of piercing, as it has been around since the archeological record.
In many cases, ear measurement has been used throughout history to indicate the position of a member of a particular tribe, and in many respects this is still the case today. Prolonged piercings were, and still are, a reflection of an individual’s sexual prowess, as well as their superiority over other males in the tribe. The greater the stretch, the more important the individual.
Otzi the Iceman is a prime example of a mummy known to have elongated ears. This is the earliest known example of ear measurements, Otzi had ear piercings of 7-11 mm during 3300 BC. It has been suggested that the stretching of the ears noted in depictions of Siddhartha Gautama, better known as the Buddha, may have been caused by the weight of the gold jewelery he wore, but this is only a guess.
In support of this, however, is the fact that the Masai tribe of Kenya and the Lahu and Karen-Paduang people of Thailand use this ‘gravity’ technique to stretch their piercings. Let’s look at ear measurement practices used by different cultures today.
A. Mursi Tribal women
The Mursi are an Ethiopian tribe where women are required to wear ear and lower lip plates. About a year before marriage, or at about the age of 15, a Mursi girl’s mother will pierce her lip and drive a wooden peg through the incision.
Once healed, the wedge is changed to a larger diameter. Finally, the peg is replaced by a plate of clay or wood, and this plate is successively changed for larger diameter ones until the required diameter is reached – from about 8 – 22 cm in diameter (3 – 9 inches). After these plates are secured, she receives a higher degree of respect than those without them, and is known as ‘Bhansanai’.
These lip and ear plates do not have to be worn all the time, but are an expected decoration on special occasions such as weddings and other celebrations, and when serving food to men. Today, young women can generally make their own decisions about whether or not to follow this tradition.
B. The Maasai people of Kenya
The practice of ear measurement has been common among Maasai men and women for thousands of years. However, in recent years most young men have not followed this custom, although you will still find many Maasai women wearing ear ornaments made of stones, cross-cut elephant tusks, wood and animal bones.
The original piercing is performed with a thorn, a sharpened twig or the sharp tip of a knife. Once healed, the ear measurement is performed by wearing increasingly heavy jewelry that pulls the lobe down and stretches the piercing. This is the traditional way of measuring ears in more primitive cultures, although many Maasai today will use appropriate ear measuring techniques, such as their own versions of inset cones or cone spikes. Beads are a common form of decoration, although bone, tusk and wood plugs are also used.
C. The Fulani tribe of Africa
Fulani women from Nigeria and Central Africa tend to use smaller diameter ears and decorate them with large gold domes or hoops with earrings. A Fulani child will have their ears pierced at about 3 years of age, although they may not stretch until they are older. The gauges used by Fulani women are relatively small compared to the Maasai and Mursi, although jewelry can be larger.
D. Asian hill tribes
Of the various hill tribes, the only two known to practice ear measurement are the Lahu of Thailand, and the Karen-Padaung (Long Necks) of Myanmar (Burma), as well as the Phrae Province of Thailand. The latter tribe is best known for their neck rings, which give the appearance of long necks, but both cultures believe that the ear is sacred and the more jewelry they can wear the better. By assessing their ears, they can wear the maximum amount of jewelry they believe is possible.
E. Mexican and Central American civilizations
In Mayan and Aztec society, ear measurement was considered desirable for men. There are many Mayan representations of men with spikes and ear plugs (ear coils) in diameter ears, and the material used indicates the social position of the wearer. Jade earplugs were worn by the upper classes, while others would use bone, stone, wood and other materials. In central Mexico, Aztec craftsmanship is evident in ear gauges and gold and silver ornaments, although the lower classes would decorate their stretchable earlobes with shell, copper, and wood among many other imaginative materials.
Ear measuring is done around the world, and among other notable areas involved in the practice is Japan, where the Ainu used ear jewelry made of shell, bone, and ball and ring known as Ninkari. There are many other cultures around the world where ear piercing has been a part of their lives, and even today many people see ear stretching as a fashion statement and a way to express their personality and individuality.
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