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 has been a status symbol, while for women, in addition to being used as a means of body decoration, it has also been used to signify the attainment of womanhood.
Ear measurement, which is also known as ear lift, is the stretching of the earlobe piercings to larger diameters than the original piercing. It is a form of body enhancement or beautification that many young Westerners adopt to look “different” from the usual crowd. However, this is not a modern form of body piercing, as it has been around for as long as archaeological records exist.
In many cases, ear measurement has historically been used to indicate the position of members of a specific tribe, and in many respects this is still the case today. Stretched piercings have been, and continue to be, a reflection of the individual’s sexual ability and also their superiority over other men in the tribe. The greater the stretch, the more important the individual.
Otzi the Iceman is an excellent example of mummies known for having pricked ears. This is the oldest known example of ear measurement, Otzi had 7-11mm ear piercings during 3300 BC. C. It has been suggested that the stretching of the ears seen in the representations of Siddhartha Gautama, better known as Buddha, may have been caused by the weight of the gold jewelry he was wearing, but this is a mere assumption.
However, it is supported by 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 take a look at ear measurement practices used today by various cultures.
A. Mursi tribal women
The Mursi are an Ethiopian tribe where women are required to wear plates on their calibrated ears and lower lip. About a year before her marriage, or around 15 years of age, a Mursi girl’s lip will be pierced by her mother and a wooden dowel pushed through the incision.
Once cured, the dowel is exchanged for a larger diameter one. Finally, the peg is replaced with a clay or wood plate, and this plate is successively exchanged for others of a larger diameter until the required diameter is reached, about 8 to 22 cm in diameter (3 to 9 inches). Once these plaques have been secured, she receives a higher degree of respect than those without them, and is known as ‘Bhansanai’.
These ear and lip plates do not need to be worn permanently, but are an expected adornment during 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 Masai people of Kenya
The practice of ear measurement has been common among Maasai men and women for thousands of years. In recent years, however, most young men have not followed this custom, although you will still find many Maasai women with ear ornaments made of stones, cross-cut elephant tusks, wood, and animal bones.
The original piercing is done with a thorn, a sharp twig, or the tip of a sharp knife. Once healed, the ear measurement is carried out using increasingly heavy jewelry that pulls the lobe downward and stretches the piercing. This is the traditional way of measuring ears in more primitive cultures, although many Masai today will use proper ear measurement techniques, such as their own versions of insert cones or tapered spikes. Beads are a common form of ornamentation, although plugs made of bone, tusks, and wood are also used.
C. The African Fulani tribe
Fulani women from Nigeria and Central Africa tend to wear smaller diameter ear flaps and decorate them with large gold domes or earring hoops. A Fulani child will have his ears pierced around the age of 3, although they may not be stretched until he is older. The gauges used by Fulani women are relatively small compared to Masai and Mursi, although jewelry can be larger.
D. Asian mountain tribes
Of the various hill tribes, the only two known to practice ear measurement are the Lahu of Thailand and the Karen-Padaung (Longnecks) of Myanmar (Burma) and also the Phrae province of Thailand. The latter tribe is best known for their neck rings, which offer the appearance of long necks, but both cultures believe that the ear is sacred and that the more jewelry they can wear, the better. By measuring their ears, they can wear as much jewelry as they think possible.
E. Civilizations of Mexico and Central America
In Mayan and Aztec society, ear measurement was considered desirable for men. There are many Mayan representations of men with flares and earplugs (ear spools) in calibrated ears, and the material used was indicative of the social position of the wearer. The upper classes wore jade earplugs, while the rest used bone, stone, wood, and other materials. In central Mexico, Aztec craftsmanship is evident in earplugs and gold and silver ornaments, although the lower classes would adorn their earlobes with shells, copper, and wood, among many other imaginative materials. .
Ear measurement has been carried out around the world, and among other notable areas involved in this practice is Japan, where the Ainu wore ear jewelry made of shells, bone, and a ball and ring known as Ninkari. There are many other cultures around the world where ear sizing was a part of their life, and even today many people consider ear stretching to be a fashion statement and a way to express their own personality and individuality.