Sometimes, history is only as good as any written record or archeological/historical finds give us insight into. This is why it’s sometimes so difficult to chart the full history of a different type of piercing. When it comes to ear stretching, we have a pretty comprehensive history, but it’s not perfect. This is because it also comes down to what’s classified as having stretched ears and whether the jewelry found is determined to be for earlobes or another type of body modification. Additionally, due to preservation issues, the soft tissue of the earlobes tends to no longer be there when bodies are found.

In this article, we’ll use the information we have to follow along the history of ear stretching, dating back to the 3300s BCE until the present.

Ötzi the Ice Man

This is the first known account of someone with stretched ear lobes. Discovered by German tourists in 1991, Ötzi is a frozen mummy dating back to 3300 BCE. Not only is this the first known account of stretched ears, but it’s also the first known account of body modification period. Upon his finding, his ears appeared to be stretched to a 0 gauge. There’s speculation that Ötzi is part of a “copper culture” that existed in the mid-fourth millennium BCE.

While this is the first known account, it’s definitely not the first. Unfortunately, we won’t know more about stretched ears predating Ötzi and his culture unless fossilized stretched lobes are found.

Ear Stretching in Ancient Egypt

While there’s mention of body piercing in ancient texts and some remains, as well as statues, it’s not until we take a closer look at Egypt that we really see ear stretching as a cultural tradition.

If you look at the busts of both Tutankhamun (commonly referred to as King Tut) and Horemheb, you can see that they both have large stretched lobes. A death mask of King Tutankhamun depicts him with stretched ears around 10-12mm. Additionally, a pair of large gauge earrings were found in his tomb in the Valley of the Kings. These earrings are believed to be the first hanger-style plugs found to date.

What’s even more interesting is that you can see artistic representations of many pharaohs throughout history where they have stretched lobes. In addition to pharaohs, mummies of ancient Egyptian women were discovered with their stretched earlobes preserved.

In terms of the jewelry the ancient Egyptians wore, the majority of their plugs were made from a material called faience. To make plugs out of faience, a “frit,” which is a powdered mix of quartz, copper, lime, and flux, is glazed so it hardens into a stone-like consistency when heated to a thousand degrees. Plugs were also made from stone, bone, gold, and electrum, depending on the class of the person wearing them.

While we have proof of the ancient Egyptians wearing plugs, it is believed that this practice came from the Nubians who served as mercenaries during this time or the Hyksos in Asia.

Cypriots & Gold Coils

Believe it or not, a lot of the jewelry the ancient Egyptians wore during the Bronze Age came from Cyprus. In order to make bronze, you had to have copper. Cyprus was rich in copper, so much so that the Egyptians sent tons of tin to Cyprus to combine it with their copper to produce bronze.

During this time, the Egyptians drew inspiration from Cypriot coils, which were made of solid gold and bronze, and were worn in earlobes from around 1600-1100 B.C.

However, Cypriots wearing thick rings of gold, copper, and silver goes all the way back to the mid-second millennium B.C. and parallels Egypt’s earlobe stretching trends (with the exception of the giant faience plugs they wore).

Additionally, a terracotta statuette of a woman with a bird face from around 1450 to 1200 B.C. depicts the woman having stretched ears with large hoops in her ears.

Etruscan Earrings

Etruscans, who are from Etruria (which is now considered central Italy), were known for their elaborate jewelry. While nobody has translated ancient Etruscan language, it is believed that earlobe stretching was done by both men and women to display social status and wealth.

The Etruscans were known for their elaborate jewelry. The Met Museum in New York has an Etruscan earring from 1000 B.C. that is a thick gold ring much larger in size than the typical earring we’d wear today.

In the 4th to the early 3rd century B.C., the Etruscans made golden grappolo earrings resembling the shape of a bunch of grapes. These earrings are what would be considered modern ear weights, as they were extremely heavy and had wearable posts that got as thick as a modern 3/8-inch plug.

Ancient Greece

While it may be surprising to read, a lot of our modern jewelry, especially hangers and spirals, is based on jewelry that came from ancient Greece.

One of the earliest earrings discovered from ancient Grecian times was an electrum earring in the form of a double hook. This earring is much thicker than what we think of when we think of a traditional earring.

A terracotta statue from the 5th century B.C. depicts a woman’s head (possibly attributed to a sphinx) with stretched ears.

We can confirm that the ancient Greeks practiced the art of ear stretching when looking at the jewelry they wore. In fact, it was mostly a unisex practice from 900 to 400 BCE until it later became limited to women. In fact, translations of the Greek historian Thucydides, who was around during the 5th century B.C.) show that he felt the earrings were gaudy and worn by effeminate or old-fashioned older men.

During the ancient Grecian times, wearing jewelry was a way to both establish your wealth status and carry your wealth around with you.

An earring that closely resembles many of the styles we see today is attributed to the 2nd half of the 5th century B.C. It is a gold hanger-style earring with an ornate crescent-shaped design. While this design is attributed to both the Greeks and the Cypriots, it shows that we take a lot of design inspiration from ancient history.

A pair of earrings from the first quarter of the 4th century B.C. are attributed to both the Greeks and the Cypriots. They are a pair of thick gold and copper alloy spiral earrings with a lion-griffon head terminal.

A white gold earring from the last quarter of the 4th century B.C. with a lion head has a wearable surface that’s close to a half-inch thick.

Throughout ancient Greecian times, the earrings start to resemble modern-day ear weights. A pair of Hellenistic golden earrings from 300 B.C. show ornate gold disks with representations of Eros hanging from them. The fact that they are 3 ¾ inches in height means that they are quite heavy. Their sheer weight, combined with the thick gold rings worn in the ears, makes them so much like modern-day ear weights.

The Olmecs

If you’re an elder millennial, you might remember Olmec as the name of the talking sculpture in the TV game show Legends of the Hidden Temple. They got the name for this character from the Olmecs, the earliest known Mesoamerican civilization. They lived in what is now considered Veracruz, Mexico. In addition to the possibility of them being the oldest Western hemisphere to develop a writing system, as well as the fact that they invented the concept of zero, they also practiced ear stretching.

The Olmecs were known for their sculptures. Some of their most famous are their ceramic babies, which are suspected to be either infantilized portraits of the elite, idealized portraits of mythological figures or deities, or even portraits of real babies. These sculptures date as far back as the 12th century B.C. However, despite being infants, many of them have stretched ears.

In addition to the babies, many of the sculpted figures hold babies. For example, this statue of a seated bench figure from the 10th-4th century B.C. depicts a figure sitting on a cloud throne while holding an infant. The figure has drilled stretched lobes, and it is believed that the Olmecs wore removable ornaments in them.

The Olmecs were also known for their colossal head sculptures found throughout Mexico. Art historians and archaeologists believe these heads were carved from massive boulders. So far, 17 have been found, and they are believed to be representations of leaders from around 1500-1000 B.C. Many of the colossal heads have carvings that represent jewelry that was worn in stretched earlobes. In his book, The Olmecs: America’s First Civilization, Anthropology professor Richard Diehl describes the jewelry they wore, which closely resembles modern-day plugs and tunnels.

The Mayans

While the Mayans are mostly known for their pyramids, calendar, mathematics, and human sacrifice practices, they’re important to discuss as part of the history of ear stretching. While it’s hard to pinpoint exactly how far back ear stretching goes, researchers guess that it goes as far back as the second millennium B.C.

While statues and figurines from ancient Mayan times depict men, women, and deities with stretched lobes, preserved jewelry gives us a more in-depth look at their ear stretching practice.

In Mayan culture, wearing jewelry made from jade (jadeite, to be more exact) was how you displayed wealth and power. It is believed that jade was a symbol of everlasting love as well. Because stretching to an ideal size was a slow process, having stretched ears was a way to demonstrate patience and discipline.

During the ancient Mayan times, children aged 4 through 7 would have their ears pierced with small flares and would gain progressively larger flares as they progressed through life milestones.

The Mayans often traded with the Olmec, and you can see the influence reflected in the ear flares both wore. Mayan ear flares from between the 3rd and 9th centuries were constructed from jade. These ear flares have subtly carved lines at the corners to make each side represent flower petals.

In the image below, it’s easy to think that these represent a pair of ear flares. However, these actually represent half of a pair of ear flares.

The smaller, deep green piece fits perfectly inside the larger, lighter green piece. Nesting ear flares were common jewelry in ancient Mayan times. However, the nesting pieces were also commonly anchored in place using various methods.

One of the methods for anchoring the ear flares in place includes the placement of a bead (or beads) set into the front, anchoring the jewelry in place with a set of beaded counterweights that were threaded through the jewelry and hung behind the earlobe.

Another method was using a decorative stick through the earlobe with a string and jade bead as a counterweight and a composite ear flare worn around the stick. The jade funerary mask of Mayan ajaw (ruler or king) Pakal the Great (683 A.D) depicts this composite style of jewelry.

The Mayans also wore what we consider today as flared plugs. The jadeite plugs below are from around 550-850 A.D. and are approximately 2 ¾ inches in diameter.

The Moche

While the Olmec and Mayans had hierarchal societies ruled by kings, the Moche (also known as the early Chimu) were not a monarchial society. Instead, they were a group of autonomous people that shared cultural traditions and ideas.

The Moche lived in what is now known as Peru from around 100 to 700 A.D. They were masters at creating metal and ceramic objects. We can see some of this craftsmanship in the ear flares they wore.

In addition to being great metalsmiths, the Moche also used valuable materials to make mosaics. The above pair of ear flares with winged messengers are from the 3rd to 7th century A.D. They are made from turquoise, sodalite, spondylus shell, gold, and mother of pearl. The gold beads around the circumference of the mosaic represent the modern designs that we see today.

In the Moche culture, the bigger the ear flare, the more important the person. The ear flares above have a wearable diameter of about a half inch or so. Because of the inlaid stone, these were also quite heavy. The length of the wearable part might have been used as a counterbalance. It’s also possible that the wearable part of the ear flares was connected to a headdress or piece of clothing to help take some of the weight off the ear.

Because of the weight, it’s suspected that these were worn just for ceremonial purposes rather than everyday wear. However, there are indications on the jewelry that they were, in fact, worn.

The figure on the mosaic is a common running motif found throughout Moche art. However, it’s unclear whether this is supposed to be a mythological creature or an anthropomorphized human.