Earliest Evidence of Facial Piercing in Africa Discovered in 12,000-Year-Old Skeleton

The earliest evidence of facial piercing in Africa has been discovered in the skeletal remains of a young man who lived around 12,000 years ago. After reanalyzing the teeth of the man, researchers found they had been worn down by an object rubbing against them—indicating his lip and cheeks were pierced.

Evidence of prehistoric piercing—and other types of body modification—are difficult to find as it tends to be performed on soft tissues, like skin and muscle, that normally degrade after death.

For a study published in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology, researchers led by John C. Willman, from the University of Coimbra in Portugal, looked at the remains of a skeleton dubbed Olduvai Hominid 1 (OH1). The skeleton belonged to a young man who lived towards the end of the Late Pleistocene (20,000 to 12,000 years ago).

The skeleton was first discovered in Tanzania in 1913, and evidence suggests he had been deliberately buried. Previous research on his teeth suggests they had been filed down in a body modification practice—the practice of ablation, where teeth are purposefully removed, is known to have been used as a way of identifying an individual as being part of a group.

However, Willman and colleagues say the wear to the teeth is more likely the result of a lip piercing. "Our review of the literature shows no evidence for facial piercings in Africa prior to about 10,000 years ago, in individuals from archaeological sites in Sudan," he told Newsweek. Ablation, he noted, was common in Africa between 20,000 and 12,000 years ago.

"Our paper is interesting in that we documented one of the earliest cases of...facial-piercing around a time in which only ablation was previously documented, thus adding to the diversity of known body modification practices at this time," he said. "What we have here is a really cool case of indirect evidence for facial piercings because they left a sort of 'negative imprint' by creating a very specific pattern of dental wear."

OH1 facial piercing
Image showing teeth of OH1 and the proposed piercings. John C Willman

The jewelry that OH1 wore would have been fairly large, at least an inch wide. What they were made of is unknown as they were not found in the burial. They may have been made from wood that decomposed over time, or they may have been removed before burial.

When the practice of facial piercing may have started and for what reason is unknown. Today, people change their appearance for a huge number of reasons, from expressing an individual identity, to showing they belong to a specific group. Willman says OH1 probably has similar reasons for his facial piercings.

"[The study shows] that they are just like you or I in that they expressed an identity outwardly through the same sorts of means we use today: clothing, hairstyle, tattoo, piercings, etc. The human body was as much a form of material culture for social expression in the Pleistocene as it is for people today," he said.

"I think that it is just another way of expressing one's identity in a way that is readily visible to others. It's a marker of social identity."

The researchers hope to find similar cases in other individuals from this time and region. "If we find more evidence in other individual's we might be able to build a case that it represents a marker of regional or group-level identity," Willman said.