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Teeth of OH1 (John C Willman) and the proposed facial piercings. (Lou-Octavia Mørch)

Giant Facial Piercings Found On 12,000-year-old Face


The earliest evidence of facial piercing may have been found on the skeleton of a man who lived in East Africa towards the end of the Late Pleistocene (20,000 to 12,000 years ago). The key to the new findings was discovered on the young man’s teeth. The “wearing patterns” on the inner lower teeth suggest an object of some sort had repetitively rubbed against them, which a scientist extrapolates to mean the man’s lip and cheeks must have been pierced.

Body Modification in an Ancient Nation

The new study published in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology, by John C. Willman from the University of Coimbra in Portugal, details his research on the skeleton that was discovered in Tanzania in 1913, and is known today as ‘Olduvai Hominid 1 (OH1)’.

The proposed facial piercings. (Lou-Octavia Mørch)

The proposed facial piercings. (Lou-Octavia Mørch)

An article in New Scientist about the paper says tangible evidence of prehistoric piercing is rare because it tends to be performed on soft tissues, like skin and muscle, that normally degrade after death. But the evidence gathered suggests the man had not only been buried with deliberation,” but previous research conducted on his teeth suggested they had been filed down in a body modification practice”.

Known as ablation, teeth are purposefully removed as a way of identifying the individual as belonging to a specific group, like a football scarf but more extreme, and according to Willman this was a common practice in Africa between 20,000 and 12,000 years ago. However, considering the billions of folks who have died from tooth related diseases, a full-mouth extraction’ more than often might been a matter of life or death.

In ablation, teeth are purposefully removed as a way of identifying the individual as belonging to a specific group. (CC0)

The Origins of Facial Piercing

Willman told Newsweek the wearing on the ancient skeleton’s teeth is likely to have resulted from “a lip piercing” but that his review of the literature shows no evidence in Africa for facial piercings before about 8,000 BC, which was found in ancient people living in the territory which is modern day Sudan. Essentially, the professor and his team of researchers has documented one of the earliest cases of facial-piercing from a time in deep-history when archaeologists had thought only ablation was performed.

This new paper adds greatly to the diversity of known body modification practices at this time in history and the professor told Newsweek what we have here is a really cool case” of indirect evidence for facial piercings.” The reason he calls the evidence indirect” is because it is actually a 'negative imprint' created by a very specific pattern of dental wear”, and not actually a piece of facial jewelry.

Willman says the 12,000-year-old remains have a “very specific pattern of dental wear.” (American Journal of Physical Anthropology)

So, There Have Always Been ‘Clickers’?

What is being suggested here is that the ancient man was like one of those teens you sit beside on the bus or subway that click, click, and click ‘something’ with their tongues. Often today you can see these artifacts sticking through their cheeks as well. But what might a 12,000-year-old hunter have clicked on?

OH1’s burial was void of jewelry and it is not known whether his clicker was made from wood, bone, or stone, but it is speculated that it would have been fairly large - “at least an inch wide” according to the paper. Thus, very noisy.

Historians are unclear as to why or how the practice of facial piercing began as a way of expressing ones  individual identity and to show alignment with specific groups, but Willman says his study shows that ancient people were “just like you or I” in that they expressed an identity outwardly through clothing, hairstyle, tattoo, piercings, etc. The human body was a central form of material culture for social expression in the Pleistocene - as it is for people today, he said.

The Modern Queen of ‘The Clickers’

Imagine for a moment that in 12,000 years’ time a scientist combs through our graveyards looking for evidence of how we pierced our bodies, but their sample set included the shocking “Davidson C” (Elaine Davidson).

Born in Berinsfield (Brazil) and now residing in Glasgow, Scotland, according to the Guinness World Records she is the Most Pierced Woman in the world. Way back in 2000 Davidson had 462 piercings and by August 2001 she had 720, but by 2005 she had an incredible, and highly magnetic, 3,950 individual body piercings!

With more than 500 piercings in her genitalia, externally and internally, the total combined weight of her internal piercings is estimated to be about 3 kg (6.61 lb.) and according to The Telegraph, in 2009 her piercings totaled 6,005. At the time of her wedding on June 8, 2011 news reports claimed her total number of piercings numbered a whopping 6,925. Considering this new paper, you can just imagine the state of her teeth!

Top Image: Teeth of OH1 (John C Willman) and the proposed facial piercings. (Lou-Octavia Mørch)

By Ashley Cowie



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Is this the original Hipster? Any evidence of a well kept beard?

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Ashley is a Scottish historian, author, and documentary filmmaker presenting original perspectives on historical problems in accessible and exciting ways.

He was raised in Wick, a small fishing village in the county of Caithness on the north east coast of... Read More

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