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Education Blog



Mütter EDU Staff

March 27, 2020

Welcome, fellow historico-medico aficionados to our latest installment of , our look back at weird and downright fascinating aspects of medical history. Past installments have examined dubious cancer cures such as and krebiozen, , and . This latest installment of CPP Curiosities draws upon a lesson available here at the Mütter Museum, and who better to explain it to you than our resident Museum Educator, Marcy Engleman.

Marcy, the floor is yours!

I have spent years educating students who visit the Mutter Museum. The topics range from forensics to Civil War medicine. But my favorite lesson is body modification. In this lesson, I talk about Chinese foot binding, tattooing, corsetry, and more. The topic from that lesson that I wanted to highlight for this blog is piercing.

Man has been wearing jewelry for millennia, possibly back to Neanderthal days. But in 2016, some Australian scientists found an artifact in a rock shelter that has changed our thinking about body modification. They found a piece of kangaroo bone, shaped long and thin, for the purpose of wearing in the nose septum. It is presumed that warriors might wear a bone in their septum to intimidate their enemy, making them look scary and fierce. Scientists dated this bone to approximately 44,000 BC!

Piercing, the act of cutting or puncturing the skin to insert a piece of jewelry, appears in many cultures across the globe. The reasons for piercings vary, including indicating social ranking or class, displaying tribal affiliation, and intimidating enemies. They can also serve aesthetic purposes or demonstrate rites of passage. For example. women of the Aleutian Islands would wear sea lion whiskers as earrings, as a token of marrying a good hunter. During the Elizabethan Era (late 16th century Britain), English noblemen would wear at least one ear piercing as a symbol of wealth.

Ears aren’t the only body part to be pierced. Navel piercing, mostly a modern fad, dates to Ancient Egypt where royals pierced their navels to demonstrate nobility. Nose piercings were common among African and Indian cultures and gained popularity in Great Britain and the United States during the counterculture and punk movements of the 1960s and 1970s. Between the 14th and 16th centuries, the Aztecs and Mayans used tongue piercings as a form of blood sacrifice.

Lip piercings are common in cultures around the world. Mursi women in Ethiopia have the choice to pierce their lower lips around the age of 16. Over the course of weeks and months, the girls stretch the hole in the lower lips, wearing plugs made of clay or wood. It is often seen as a sign of reproductive potential and social adulthood.

One of the oldest examples of piercing comes from “Ötzi the Iceman,” a body of a man discovered by hikers in the Alps in 1991. It is estimated that he lived approximately 5,300 years ago. Scientists have been able to recreate his appearance, discover his last meal, estimate what he was wearing. They also found was covered with tattoos and his ears were pierced. The gauges on his ears stretched his lobes as wide as 7-11mm.

That is just a brief introduction to one form of body modification. If you are an educator and are interested in learning about more, you can bring your students to the Mutter Museum and book our Body Modifications lesson!

Thanks, Marcy. For our full list of lessons, including Body Modification, . Until next time, catch you on the strange side!