The history of why people have stretched ears

I've been told that ear stretching is a fashion fad, that it's something everyone's doing because it's popular.  My response is that stretched ears have been around forever.  It's not a new idea, style, or fad.  I see stretched ears jumping from one social group to the next, but never really fading away.  In the modern day it is largely a mode of expression.

I have always been fascinated with stretched ears and their origins.  Why did people in our past start ear stretching and how does it relate to why people still do it today?  I wanted to dive deeper and get a more in depth view on why cultures started ear stretching...

ÖTZI THE ICEMAN (3300 BC)

One of the first historical signs of stretched ears is Ötzi the Iceman.  His frozen body was found in The Alps in Italy and dated back over 5,000 years.  He was estimated to be 45 years of age and was covered with over 60 tattoos.  These tattoos were thought to have helped to relieve pain from his body. The findings also make him the oldest known tattooed human to ever be found.  His stretched ears were found to be between 7mm and 11mm in size.

KING TUT (1323 BC)

Another great historical era with evidence of stretched ears was represented by the great Egyptian pharaoh, Tutankhamen.  There have been many statues and wall paintings discovered of youths with stretched ears.  It seems that in his day, more kids than adults stretched their ears.  You have to remember that during his reign, King Tut was just a child.  There is little information on why the boy king stretched his ears.  However scientist did determine that his ears were stretched to 10mm in size.  His ornate 10mms were some of the first plug hangers to ever be found.

King Tut Stretched Ears

Gautama Buddha (563 BC)

The revered Buddha is often portrayed with long stretched ears.  Many people debate on why Buddha might have had stretched ears.  Buddhists believe that long ears are a sign of an enlightened being.  Thus Buddha, being the most enlightened being, would have long ears to symbolize this. But how did Buddha get these stretched ears? 

Some say that it was due to the Buddha's royal roots.  Perhaps the affluent prince may have worn large earrings to show off his wealth.  The weight of heavy gold earrings would stretch his ears.  After the Prince left his royal family and all his lavish belongings and became the Buddha, his ears remained stretched and long.

Buddha Stretch Ears

The People Rapa Nui / Easter Island (300 AD)

Easter Island is best known for the giant enigmatic stone heads found along the island.  The inhabitants, known as, Rapa Nui were first discovered by Europeans in 1566 by sea explorers.  The higher class priests and chiefs were described as having balls in their ears stretching them to the size of a fist.  Their ears were stretched using plugs made of wood, shark bone, and some used shell from a tortoise.

Easter Island Stretched Ears

MODERN AFRICAN TRIBES (MURSI, MAASAI, AND FULANI)

Today Africa is still filled with tribes who have passed on the cutural tradition of ear stretching from generation to generation.

MURSI TRIBAL WOMEN

The Mursi tribe in Ethiopia practices the custom of stretching their ears and their mouths as a sign of respect.  Traditionally around 15 years of age and before marriage, a girl's lip and ears are pierced.  The stretched ears and lip show that the girl has grown into a woman and is now able to have children.  It is a custom that allows the tribe to distinguish their women from those of other tribes.

THE MAASAI PEOPLE OF KENYA

In the Maasai tribe of Kenya, both the men and the women have traditionally stretched their ears.  Although it seems to be a fading practice, you still see many women and some men honoring the custom.  They use stone, elephant tusks, bone, and wood.  Heavier ornamental earrings might dangle from their stretched lobes, though mostly in women.  Stretched ears is a sign of wisdom among the people of the Massai tribe, largely because the elders will have the largest stretched ears.

THE AFRICAN FULANI TRIBE

The Fulani Tribe is located in Nigeria and Central Africa.  Their members start piercing their ears at a young age, but will not begin stretching until they are older.  The tribe does not stretch their ears large like some of the other tribes.  Their ears are stretched for decorative purposes.

THE DAYAK TRIBE

The Dayak tribe can be found in Kalimantan (Borneo).  Although the practice of stretching their earlobes is not as popular as it was in the past, some people still do stretch their ears.  Both men and women are pierced at an early age and brass weights are hung to stretch the ears.  Those in the tribe with long stretched lobes are well respected.  The longer the ears were stretched, the more revered a person would become to the tribe.

Other Tribes and modern stretching

There are many other tribes that have stretched their ears across the world.  Notably, the Mayans, along with the Aztecs, have shown a history of putting gold and silver in their stretched ears to show their upper class citizenship.

To those who think stretched ears are a fad or will fade away, think again.  In fact, they seem to be doing the opposite and growing more into our modern day.  The next topic will dive deeper into why modern men and women are stretching their ears and what impact it has on society. 

What are your thoughts?

We are taking a poll.  Do you think ear stretching is a fad?  Or do you think it is on the rise and will continue to grow?  We would love to hear your story.


8 comments

  • Cameron Gonnuscio

    I just pierced my ears and plan to continue stretching them. I’m currently at a 16G and am so looking forward to the journey. I’ve always been fascinated by gauged ears so I decided to take the first step

  • Colby Dufren

    I’m native american ear stretching or gauging is something we’ve done for hundreds of years and I say screw you if you don’t like it

  • Senna beams

    I started off getting a new piercing each time I had a birthday threw out highschool but by the time I was 18 I noticed I played with them a lot by this point I had 4 sets of earrings on each side I tugged at them during school so by senior year I could wear tiny plugs I’m currently 28 and I’ve spent a decade doing this it started I think mostly because I saw people with it and loved it too but for me I have them everywhere in my ears now and normal earrings still shock me I just forget everyone don’t have these I go back and forth and sometimes never wear a thing I’ve had bad comments and good ones but for now I stay at 22mm. One year I’ll have 30mm ears the next 10mm you never know what I’ll do. A lot of stuff with me too is it gave me something cool to focus on in the bad times.

  • Jenn

    Each time I overcome a challenge in life I’ve gauged a size bigger. As I’ve learned new lessons in life I’ve become more knowledgeable and choose a new set of gauges to relate to it. 00 and about to go to 2

  • Sharon Camacho

    I like them! Mine are 9/16 and I think that’s perfect for me. I have mine done because I enjoy them, I get looks at work but, I think it’s more out of Curiosity. The way I see it is, to each their own . 🤘

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