Humans Have Worn Facial Piercings For 12,000 Years, Ancient Skull Reveals

Front and side view of wear to the incisors and canines caused by lower lip labret piercing. Photos: John C Willman

Researchers have revealed what appears to be the earliest known evidence of facial piercings in humans in Africa, dating to around 12,000 years ago. The discovery was all down to the wear and tear on an ancient set of teeth.

In 1913, the fossilized remains of a young male were discovered in the Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania, known as Olduvai Hominid 1 (OH1). Despite being the first hominin remains discovered in what would turn out to be one of the world’s most famous hominin fossil sites – the place that gave us the bones that would lead us to conclude humans evolved in Africa – OH1 hasn’t been studied in great depth. The closest to dating the remains is still between 20,000-12,000 years old.

In the early 1990s, researchers studying the wear and tear of OH1’s teeth concluded that their unusual “mutilations” were likely down to chewing tough plant material. However, when John C Willman of the Univerity of Coimbra in Portugal took a look, he immediately had a different hypothesis. 

Reporting in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology, Willman and colleagues re-examined OH1’s teeth and jawbone, and concluded that the pattern of wear on the teeth, particularly on the incisors and postcanines, more closely resembled that seen in people who wore facial adornments than that from wear from chewing. Specifically, the way the enamel appeared "scooped out" suggested a labret type of piercing, through the lower lip. 

"If you imagine an object (piercing) rubbing against the front of your lower teeth for a long period of time, you can begin to imagine how this concavity could form," Willman told IFLScience. "In fact, many people with facial piercings today may notice that their teeth move, or gum tissue may recede a bit where the back of their piercing touches the teeth and gums."

More surprisingly, facets on the buccal, or cheek, teeth suggested labrets were worn in each cheek too, and large ones at that. 

"Ethnographic cases from around the world generally remark on the use of a small incision when introducing earrings or facial piercings," Willman said. "However, to get piercings of the size we suggest for OH1, a certain amount of stretching was probably necessary to insert adornments of increasing size."

Left: Artistic reconstruction (by Lou-Octavia Mørch) of the proposed pattern of labret piercings worn by OH1. Right: The darker areas of enamel on the teeth is the exposed dentin the researchers propose was caused by a lower lip labret. Photos and image permission: John C Willman

It's unknown what sort of materials the labrets were made of, but Willman suggests they could have been made from a hard but perishable wood, which could explain why no evidence of the objects was found, or the piercings were removed when OH1 was buried. It's also difficult to determine the significance of the piercings, as this is both the oldest and only known case of people with facial piercings in Africa during the Late Pleistocene.

"While body pigmentation, clothing, hairstyles, earrings, scarification, and other forms of body modification may say something about an individual’s social identity, they are less likely to survive archaeologically," Willman told IFLScience. "We use clothing, hairstyle, tattoos, piercings, etc to say something about how we identify as an individual and/or with larger groups. Facial piercings and the adornments worn in them would have acted in much the same way in prehistory – as markers of social identity."

The oldest direct evidence of piercings comes from Ötzi the Iceman, the famous 5,300-year-old mummy found in the Ötztal Alps, who had an ear gauge piercing that was 7-11 millimeters in diameter. However, there is evidence to suggest cheek piercings in people in Central Europe around 25,000 years ago. 

"[W]e hope that additional discoveries will help build a pattern that can inform us more about the potential meanings such adornments had for the wearer(s)," Willman said. "In sort, the human body is as much a form of material culture for social expression in the Pleistocene as it is for people today." 

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