Evidence suggests that body piercing (including ear piercing) has been practiced by peoples all over the world from ancient times. Mummified bodies with piercings have been discovered, including the oldest mummified body discovered to date, that of Ötzi the Iceman, which was found in an Austrian glacier. This mummy had an ear piercing 7–11 mm in diameter.
Nose piercing and ear piercing are mentioned in the Bible. In Genesis 24:22, Abraham's servant gave a nose ring and bracelets to Rebekah, wife of his son Isaac. In Exodus 32, Aaron makes the golden calf from melted earrings. Deuteronomy 15:12-17 dictates ear piercing as a mark of slavery. Nose piercing has been common in India since the 16th century. Tongue piercing was popular with the elite of Aztec and Maya civilization, though it was carried out as part of a blood ritual and such piercings were not intended to be permanent. Ancient Mesoamericans wore jewelry in their ears, noses, and lower lips, and such decorations continue to be popular amongst indigenous peoples in these regions.
Body piercing folklore
Many contemporary authors and body piercing enthusiasts have made attempts to explain the history or development of body piercing in Western Culture, prior to its contemporary practice. In Dreamtime by Hans Peter Duerr, he claims that nipple piercing became popular in 14th century Europe. There is evidence, both anecdotal and photographic, that nipple piercing was practiced in Europe during the late 19th century and in the early 20th century, but it was not considered to be a common practice. It is sometimes claimed that Roman centurions practiced nipple piercing and that soldiers attached their capes to the piercings. This is not true. Their capes were attached to the breastplate of their armor. This particular myth owes its popularity to Doug Malloy, an American piercing pioneer who published pamphlets in the late 1970's promoting his highly fanciful histories of body piercing.
Modern history and societal attitudes
Ear piercing has existed continuously since ancient times, including throughout the 20th century in the Western world. However, in many cultures within the United States, it became a relative rarity from the 1920s until the 1960s. At that time, it regained popularity among American women, and was eventually adopted by men in the hippie and gay communities, and later the punk subculture. Ear piercing, of either or both ears, has always been practiced by men in many non-Western cultures. By the 1980s, male ear piercing had become somewhat common in the United States, although men usually only pierced one of their ears. Today, single and multiple piercing of either or both ears is extremely common among Western women, and fairly common among men.
Less conventional forms of body piercing have also existed continuously for as long as ear piercing, but generally not in Western cultures. For example, women in India routinely practice nostril piercing, and have done so for centuries.
In the 1970s, body piercing gained popularity in the gay BDSM subculture. In 1975, Jim Ward opened The Gauntlet, America's first storefront body piercing operation, in Los Angeles.
Body piercing is returning to the mainstream of modern Western cultures as attitudes and values change. Piercings that don't conform to cultural norms -- for example, facial piercings or ear piercings for men -- can still be considered inappropriate.
Attitudes towards piercing vary. Some regard the practice of piercing or of being pierced as spiritual, sometimes embracing the term "modern primitive", while others deride this view as insulting, as cultural appropriation, or as trendy. Some see the practice as a form of artistic or self-expression. Others choose to be pierced as a form of sexual expression, or to increase sexual sensitivity. For some people, piercing is part of an S-M lifestyle or relationship, or is incorporated into S-M play.
Some people choose to be pierced for symbolic reasons. For example, some survivors of sexual abuse have said that they experience piercing as allowing them to retake control over their own bodies. Some people choose to be pierced to symbolize certain relationships. For gay men, piercing has historically been viewed as a form of public self-identification or "coming out". However, the current popularity of piercing among many different groups has diluted much of its specific cultural identification and symbolism.
While some people consider body modification to be a sign of non-conformity, others deride body piercing as trendy. This can at times lead to prejudice or cognitive bias against those with piercings or visible signs of past piercings.