Body modifications are as old as time. The first known example of body piercings dates from 5000 years ago, during the last ice age. The piercing was found on a preserved iceman called Otzi in the Austrian Alps. This early homosapien had pierced ears and probably had earrings.

It's astonishing how similar modern-day humans are to this ancient mummy, but the same practices are popular today for many of the same reasons they were popular in ancient Egypt, ancient Rome, and Mesoamerica. Piercings are used for decoration, ceremony, and desire. 

In this article, you will find out more about the history and culture of body piercings through time. 

We look at what makes body piercings popular and how styles have changed through the ages. Finally, we take a look at some of the modern practices and requirements for piercings. 


Body modifications have been a practice in humanity for thousands of years, but they have only recently become the subject of serious archaeological and anthropomorphic study. A body modification is any intentional alteration of the human body for aesthetic or practical purposes. 

The study of body piercings through time has been hampered by the deterioration of body tissue. Although jewellery and body adornments have been found in tombs and burial sites throughout the ages, it has been difficult to ascertain how they were used by ancient people. 

We know how piercings are used today. In the 20th and 21st centuries, particularly from the 1960s onwards, body modifications and piercings became more popular. Women switched from clip-on earrings to physical lobe piercings, and gay men used them as part of their subculture. 

In the 21st Century, piercings follow popularity trends. Since 2015 there has been an increase in septum piercings, nipple piercings, bridge piercings, and eyebrow piercings. Earlobe stretching has also become more popular. Below are some of the most common modern body piercings. 


Piercing trends have changed over the decades. From the relatively tame lobe piercings of the 1920s to the rebellious septum of the high punk era in the 1980s, piercing studios have catered to them all. In recent times trends have changed again. In an attempt to individualise and break with style standards, people are choosing personalised stack piercings in ears and other places. 

Septum Piercing 

Around the world - particularly in tribes - the septum piercing is the second most popular body piercing after the ears. Septum piercings began their popularity in the West as a symbol of rebellion in the punk era. Today they are dainty, pretty, and popular in many demographics.  

Lobe Piercing 

Not surprisingly, lobe piercings are the most popular piercing today and in the past. The oldest piecing ever found - a 5000-year-old mummified body - had a lobe piercing, and there are plenty of images depicting lobe piercing in art throughout history. So the trend is likely never to die out.   

Nose Piercing 

Nose piercings come in different forms. There is a septum piercing in the central cartilage, a nostril piercing that is usually a stud or a ring, a rhino piercing through the front of the nose, a bridge piercing through the top of the nose, and others. Nose piercings have a long history.    

Helix Piercing 

Helix piercings are another popular piercing style, especially with people wanting to create an ear stack running from the lobe around the outer edge of the ear helix. Helix piercings are sometimes called cartilage piercings. They include rings and studs in the ear's helix structure.  

Eyebrow Piercing 

Eyebrow piercings are a popular fashion accessory. Unknown until the punk era of the 1970s, eyebrow piercings became popular in the 1990s with heartthrobs and boybands. Eyebrows are quite easy to pierce and relatively painless. For these reasons, there are popular first piercings.   

Nape Piercing 

Nape piercings are another contemporary fashion trend without much indigenous history. Nape piercings are unique and different, but they are not the most popular piercing due to the chance of rejection and migration. These piercings don't interact with nerves, contrary to some myths. 

Nipple Piercing 

Nipple piercings date back at least to Roman times and probably earlier; they also have some indigenous history within certain tribes. Malloy's Myths state that Romans had nipple piercings to hang capes on. Whether true or not, they remain popular today with both men and women.    

Navel Piercing 

Navel piercings may also have a long history dating back to the Egyptian era. A navel piercing is a bar inserted in the upper fold or underneath the navel; it is a popular look for women, but men also wear this style. Navel piercings are not painful; they're comparable to basic lobe piercings.   

Genital Piercing (Male) 

Male genital piercings are mentioned in the Kama Sutra of the first Century as a mode of arousal. They also exist in numerous tribes as a rite of passage. Penis piercings are bars and studs in various parts of the penis and surrounding genitalia. Some piercing sites are painful.   

Genital Piercing (Female)  

Again, there are mentions of female genital piercing in the Kama Sutra as a means of arousal. Today, women also report increased arousal due to their genital decoration. Female genital piercings are often bars and studs in the labia above the clitoris to prevent any desensitisation.


History of Ear Piercing 

Otzi the iceman lived around 5000 years ago. Although we don't know his exact birthday or death day, we do know that he had his ears pierced. Otzi also had tattoos. Otzi's ear lobes had large holes in them that suggest the iceman wore some sizable bronze earrings during his short life. 

Why did Otzi wear earrings? Was it for decoration, medical purposes, or tribal reasons? It's unclear and may never be known. However, it's probable the lobes were pierced and stretched since they were easier and safer to manage. There was less chance of an infection in the lobes. 

Throughout the centuries, earlobe piercings have remained popular. Although their popularity has waned at times - particularly in the middle ages when rings, necklaces, broaches, and lockets, were more fashionable; earlobe piercings would still have been common in places. 

Today, ear lobe piercings are more popular than ever. According to some reports, over 80% of people in the United States have their earlobes pierced. Of course, today, earlobes are not the only part of the ear to be pierced. Stacked piercings on the helix are becoming ever-popular. 

History of Nose Piercing 

Along with the ears, nose piercings have ancient origins. It makes sense that piercing would begin in fleshy areas with less chance of infection, less pain, and a better chance of healing. The nose qualifies in these categories. Nose piercings are dated to around 2000 BC. 

Nose piercings seem to have originated in the middle east 4000 years ago. A nose piercing appears in The Book of Genesis when Issac, Abraham's son, gives one to his future wife, a practice that is used to this day in some tribes. A nose ring is a form of security in the marriage.  

Nose piercings came to the West in the Early 20th Century when French singer Polaire wore one, but it wasn't until the 1960s and onwards that the nose piercing really gained traction. Sixties hippies toured India searching for spiritual insights and returned with trendy piercings. 

From that point on, nose piercings became popular. In the 1970s and 1980s, nose piercings were worn by punks and goths as a way of defying conservative values. Later, nose piercings entered the mainstream. Today, nose piercings are a popular first or alternative piercing option.

History of Lip Piercing 

Lip piercings are popular and diverse; they also have a long history. Lip piercings can be dated to around 6,400 years ago in areas in Africa - Sudan and Ethiopia. Ancient tribal communities in these regions wore lip plates - many still do - as a symbol of beauty, wealth, and commitment. 

In the 1990s and 2000s, lip piercings became more popular in the West. Heavy metal singers began to wear labret piercings, and the style spread to the mainstream. In the 2010s, with retro culture in full swing, labret piercings and other lip piercings boomed in popularity once again. 

The mouth and lip area is a diverse place for a piercing. There are many types of lip piercing, including the Madonna piercing above the lip to the right, the Medusa piercing above the lip in the centre, snakebite piercings through the bottom lip, and various forms of labret piercings. 

The mouth and lip area are quite sensitive, so it's a good idea to warn clients that lip piercing could be more painful than nose or lobe piercing. However, the lip and mouth are also fairly fleshy, allowing for faster healing. Most lip piercings take around six weeks to heal on average.

History of Tongue Piercing 

Tongue piercings date back to Aztex and Mesoamerican civilisations. Early tongue piercings were used by priests in ceremonies to draw blood, but there is no evidence of their long-term stylistic use. They began to be used for entertainment by travelling carnivals in the 20th Century. 

In the 1980s, there was a surge of piercing of all kinds, including experimental ones such as tongue piercings. At one time, tongue piercings were a fringe idea, but they have become more mainstream over the year. The tongue is easy to pierce, and it has a low pain threshold as well. 

Modern piercing studio use forceps and a 14-gauge needle to pierce the tongue. The tongue is held out in the forceps, and the needle is pressed through; following the needle is a straight or curved barbell that is secured for healing. Healing tongue piercings take between 3-4 weeks. 

The popularity of tongue piercings has ebbed and flowed. From the 1990s onwards, tongue piercing enjoyed steady popularity, but it declined around 2011. However, there has been a resurgence in recent years. As ever, tongue piercings are more popular with women than men.

History of Nipple Piercing 

Nipple piercings, a bar or a ring inserted horizontally, and sometimes vertically, in the nipple of women and men, a popular piercings in the modern age. This piercing has been popular with a variety of people and tribes throughout history and probably dates back thousands of years. 

That said, nipple piercings in the West started to appear in the 14th Century in some European courts, most notably Isabeau of Bavaria (1370-1435). Nipple piercings were also popular in Rome, and Julius Ceasar is thought to have had one or both of his nipples pierced as symbols. 

In ancient Rome, nipple piercings were thought to symbolise virility and strength. If Doug Malloy's myths are to be believed, the Romans also used nipple piercings as a hook to attach their cloak. This idea is unverifiable and unlikely at best, but it is compelling and practical. 

These days, nipple piercings have no purpose other than decoration and adornment, but the nipples are also sensitive, and a piercing can improve someone's sex life. In recent times, nipple piercings have regained popularity, but as ever, more women have these piercings than men.

History of Navel Piercing 

Navel piercings are a popular and simple form of body modification. They hit the mainstream in the 1990s when celebrities began to sport belly jewellery, but this piercing dates back to the Egyptians and Mayans. These ancient cultures used gold belly rings to symbolise their status. 

The Egyptians and Mayans used piercings as status symbols and as spiritual protection. It is not uncommon for archaeologists to find jewels and piercings in sarcophagi and burial sites. Ancient Egyptians used a diverse range of piercings for these purposes, including lobes, lips, and belly. 

Despite their popularity in ancient times, navel piercings seem to have disappeared from the modern cultural landscape for some time. In the nineties, however, they hit the mainstream in a big way. Thanks to Aerosmith and certain celebrities, this simple piercing became super popular.    

The navel area is fleshy, and there are few nerve endings, making the navel piercing a perfect first-time piercing or no-fuss piercing. Often a simple bar is used, or some belly jewellery to make the piercing pretty and more noticeable. These piercings continue to be popular today.

History of Genital Piercing 

When it comes to genital piercings, there are two types of people: those who shudder at the thought and those who can see the fun and advantage of it. It might surprise people in the West, but genital piercings have been used for centuries in tribes for pleasure and rites of passage.  

The oldest records of genital piercings for both men and women are detailed in the Kama Sutra - an ancient Sanskrit text on sexual desire and fulfilment. Stories have also come back from South East Asia over the centuries about genital piercings being used for pleasure and culture. 

Two of the earliest known penile piercings are called Apadrayva and Ampallang. The first goes vertically through the penis and urethra, and the second horizontally. It is thought to improve sexual performance. Some female genital piercings can also be dated back to the Kama Sutra. 

Female genital piercings became popular in the 19th Century when the clitoris was discovered as an erogenous zone. Over the years, clitoris piercings have been replaced by labia piercings that offer the same stimulation without desensitisation. Genital piercings are still popular today.


It's clear that piercings have always played a role in human societies, from the ancient Egyptians and Mayans right up to the modern-day hippies and punks. But piercings have also diversified along with mainstream cultures and subcultures. Everything is on the table today. 

In the 1960s, Gordon Moore, an American businessman and engineer, devised a trend regarding components and circuits. It states that the speed and complexity of computers will double every two years, which is pretty much standard. It's not hard to apply the law to culture. 

When we look at the cultural trends over a time period, we see the changes in styles and attitudes, but when you integrate human culture with technological trends that accelerate, you see a rapid change in ideas as well. This is evident in fashion trends, piercings and tattoos. 

In the last decade, there have been major developments in piercing styles, but this is a consequence of broader cultural changes that look to the past for inspiration and attempt to create something new. As with all human societies, we like to copy each other non-identically. 

Piercings in the 20th Century 

It's clear that body piercings have always been popular, especially in tribes and ancient civilisations. Until the start of the 20th Century, however, any piercings other than earlobe piercings and clip-on earrings were uncommon. That changed in the 1920s and beyond. 

After the war, women began to invest more in their appearance, and earlobe piercings grew in popularity. In the 1960s and 1970s, the counterculture accelerated the practice and styles of piercings, bringing ideas back from India like nose piercings, lip piercings and genital piercings.  

Body piercings were again accelerated at this time thanks to the efforts of Doug Malloy and Jim Ward, who effectively started the body modification industry with the store in West Hollywood. Suddenly there was an appetite for body modifications and a place to go for nice piercings. 

Styles and trends changed dramatically over the preceding decades as the counterculture diversified into punks and goths. Every subculture had its symbols, and piercings played a prominent role. Today, piercings of all kinds are undergoing a huge resurgence in popularity. 

Piercings in the 21st Century 

Piercings popular in the nineties included the navel, eyebrow, tongue, and septum - especially in the punk scene. Moving into the 21st Century, styles began to change. Of course, piercings were popular, but more were added, and for a time, it was about how many piercings you had. 

In the early days of the internet and social media, it was not uncommon to see people - especially those embedded in a subculture - to have specific piercings that said something about their bodily autonomy and cultural identifications. But things changed again in the 2010s. 

The 2010s was a crazy time for culture and ideas - as well as politics and activism. The world became more of a mish-mash of previous trends and retro looks, coupled with specific trends in design and fashion; Minimalism was also adopted by many people as a new mode of being. 

These new trends influenced the piercings people wore. Instead of bold statement pieces that locked them into a subculture, the piercings were minimised and diversified. Nowadays, the once-rebellious septum is commonplace, and helix clusters - minimal and lavish - are popular.

Why People Choose Piercings 

These days, people choose piercings for many of the same reasons they always have; for decoration, individuality, and ceremony. Cultures and societies might change over the centuries, but the human need for ritual and self-expression seems to transcend time, place, and society. 

Piercings offer a chance for people to decorate their bodies and claim their autonomy. In the late 20th and beginning of the 21st Century, there has been more of an emphasis on bodily autonomy, especially for women, and piercings a one way to claim the body and personalise it. 

In the decades preceding the counterculture of the sixties, there has also been a shift towards more individuality. This is reflected in products and consumer trends that are evermore individualistic. At the same time, piercings are ways to connect to a collective subculture. 

Over the centuries, piercings can be used in human ceremonies, such as genital piercings used as a rite of passage. In the modern West, piercings are still used for ceremonies. According to a survey, people use piercings to commemorate events or reclaim body parts following abuse.


Piercings should be carried out at modern, reputable piercing studios by qualified professionals. Some piercings are complex, but even the simple ones need to be made in the proper conditions, with the proper consent, and with tools that align with industry standards for health. 

Make sure the piercing studio is clean and sanitised, and piercers have enough training and experience to work there. Piercing studios must use the correct piercing tools and protocols; they also need consent forms for people under the age of 16 or 18, depending on the region.

Contemporary Practices 

Indigenous cultures and cultures of the past didn't have the same knowledge, tools, or practices we have today for piercings. In ancient times, pointed sticks would have been used, and needles in the 19th Century. Today, it is important to have the right equipment and sterilisation. 

Body jewellery should be hypoallergenic, meaning it should be non-allergic for wearers. Piecing practices should also use surgical gloves, surgical steel, and titanium to improve performance and reduce risks. Gold and silver should not be used for initial piercings, regardless of the client.

Prohibitions and Taboos 

Body piercings have grown in popularity considerably over the decades, but there are still some prohibitions and taboos in place to protect young people. In some countries, such as Scotland and Australia, there are age of consent laws in place, meaning that parental consent is needed. 

In addition to the laws around piercings for young people, some businesses and brands limit or exclude their staff from wearing piercings while they work. For instance, Starbucks limits piercing to two ears and only permits jewellery that is small and matching for their workplace.

Piercing Tools 

Professional piercing studios should be equipped with the right tools to carry out piercings safely. Piercing tools include piercing needles, dermal punches, piercing guns, forceps, needle receiving tubes, and anesthesia. Different piercings need different  tools to be available. 

Permanent body piercings are carried out by punching a hole in the skin or making a hole with a scalpel. Piercers employing these techniques need to be fully trained in the techniques and safety protocols. They should also know how to use various piercing tools for different jobs. 

Risks of Body Piercing 

Piercings are popular for a number of reasons. They are a permanent way to decorate the body and offer a chance to individualise the personality. At the same time, there are risks involved that professional piercers and clients need to be aware of; these include infection and trauma. 

Common issues clients encounter with new piercings are allergic reactions and infections. Allergies can be reduced by using the right tools and metals, and infections are countered with proper aftercare. Make sure clients understand all the risks and have signed a declaration form. 

Body Piercing Aftercare 

Putting a needle through the flesh causes inflammation, swelling, discharge, and irritation, depending on the piercing. It's important for the client's health and the piercer's reputation that clients fully understand the aftercare processes. These should be detailed before the session. 

Most piercings have a three-stage recovery process. There is an inflammation stage, a growth phase, and a maturation phase. Clients need to know what to expect at each stage in terms of bleeding and swelling and how to care for it using saline solutions and avoiding some activities. 

Final Thoughts 

Body piercings have been popular throughout the ages. They allowed people to display their status, improve their sex lives, and individuate their personalities. Not much has changed as we move into the second half of the 21st Century, except for some of the styles and piercing tools. 

At this time in human history, everything has accelerated, and we are more aware of previous cultures than ever before. For this reason, and perhaps other cultural forces at play, body piercing has become more popular, more creative, and more diverse than at any other time. 

Body modifications and piercings are an excellent way to reclaim the body, individualise the personality, and align with internal values. While piercings are safer and simpler than at any point in the past, it's still important for studios to follow standard procedures for client service.  


What are some historical facts about body piercing? 

Some historical facts about body piercings include Otzi, the mummy. He was found to be 500 years old and had his ears pierced. However, a skeleton thought to be 12,000 years old has evidence of a facial piercing. Lip and tongue piercings have been popular through the ages. 

What is the historical significance of body piercing? 

Body piercings have a range of purposes and significance depending on the culture and context. Some tribes use piercings to ward off bad spirits and prevent them from entering the body. Sailors might have worn gold earrings to pay for a Christian burial if they washed up. 

What was the first body piercing in history?

It's no surprise that Otzi had his ears pierced and not his navel or nape. Standard lobe piercings are thought to be the first attempts at piercing because their use an area of soft tissue that can heal easily and doesn't tend to get infected. Lobe piercings have always been popular piercings. 

What are the risks associated with body piercing? 

Body piercings are used to enhance our life experience, but they don't come without risks. Unless a piercing is carried out correctly using the right tools and aftercare is followed, there is a risk of an allergic reaction, rejection by the body, and infection from bacteria in the new wound. 

What is the most painful body part to get pierced? 

The most painful areas of the body to get pierced are the most nerve-dense areas, which means the genitals and the nipples. However, other areas of the body can also be painful. Helix and nose piercings might look straightforward, but they can also be painful and difficult to heal. 

What is an anxiety piercing? 

A daith piercing is located in the innermost fold of the ear; it is usually a hoop of some kind. People think a daith piercing can reduce migraines and anxiety, but much of the evidence is anecdotal rather than scientific. However, research into this is expected in the near future. 

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