An in-Depth Look at the History of Body Modifications

More than 83% of the US have their earlobes pierced! This is the most common form of body modification, followed by tattoos.

Today, body modification is generally done for aesthetic reasons. But the history of body modification is rich and complex. Tattoos and piercings have a deeply religious, cultural, and social history. 

If you want to learn more about the fascinating history of body modifications, we put together this overview! Read on to learn all about it! 

The First Body Mods

The very first recorded body modifications are tattoos belonging to Otzi the Iceman. Otzi died in 3300 BC and has more than 60 tattoos. Due to the crude tattooing techniques and the weather damage to Otzi’s skin, it was difficult for scientists to locate all the markings, but they’ve recently unpacked them all.

Almost all the tattoos were groups of lines and small crosses. They appear to have been performed by piercing the skin with a needle and then rubbing the area with charcoal. 

Judging from their placement, these tattoos seem to have therapeutic intent. Most of Otzi’s tattoos cluster around his back, where significant spinal degeneration was evident. The tattoos are therefore theorized to be early acupuncture marks or ritualistic healing symbols for pain relief.

Other early mummies have symbols of wild bulls to indicate virility and status. They also have images of sheep to represent hunting skills. 

The first piercings had magical purposes. Many tribes used metal earrings to prevent supernatural possession, as they believed that spirits and demons were repelled by metal. 

Ancient Egypt 

Tattooing was extremely common in ancient Egypt. These early tattoos often seem to have spiritual and therapeutic meaning, while some speak to class structure. 

Body modification and pregnancy go hand in hand in the ancient world.

In Egypt, many women had tattoos in honor of Hathor, a goddess of fertility. These tattoos cover the stomach and form a web of dots and lines. The net of tattoos created a barrier between life and death for the child, protecting the pregnancy.

Many women also had a tattoo of the god Bes on their thighs. Bes was the guardian for women in labor, so this was one of the best tattoos for an expecting mother. 

Priestesses also had tattoos to show their devotion to religious worship. For example, one Egyptian mummy of a spiritual woman has more than 30 tattoos, including several of the Eye of Horus. The eyes were placed on every angle of her body so that anyone looking at her would be watched by a pair of divine eyes.

Social Status

Across the ancient world, social status was everything. If you were a slave, it was important for the upper classes to know who you belonged to. Due to their intricate link with fertility, tattoos were also connected to eroticism and sexuality. 

Tattoos are, therefore, most common among lower-class slaves, dancing girls, and prostitutes. However, piercings were associated with the upper class. Ancient Egyptians stretched their earlobes and pierced themselves to show their status.

Most notably, the pharaoh could pierce his navel, but anyone else who tried this was executed! 

The Greco-Romans 

For the Greco-Romans, tattoos were generally given out as a form of punishment for criminals, prisoners of war, and runaway slaves. Gladiators also wore tattoos as symbols of their ownership.

Piercings, however, showed strength. Ancient Romans would pierce their nipples to show their stamina and virility. Even Julius Caeser got his nipples pierced! 

South America 

In ancient Peru, tattoos indicated social structure within the Moche culture. One mummy known as the Lady of Cao has tattoos over her body, including spiders, cats, snakes, and crabs. There’s no documentation of the meaning of tattoos, so this is conjecture based on the understanding of ancient Peruvian symbols, but these animals are associated with human sacrifice, rebirth, and fertility.

From this information, it’s theorized that tattoos marked transformative life events like reaching a new social status.

Likewise, they used piercing and ritualized bloodletting to achieve a greater connection with the gods through sacrifice. Extreme body modifications like stretched ears and septum rings were the best piercings for intimidating their enemies. 


The word “tattoo” is said to originate from the Samoan word “tatau.” In Samoa, tattoos were given with needles formed from boar’s teeth and pieces of turtle shells. The process took weeks to complete and was incredibly painful.

Due to the pain, tattoos were symbols of endurance and stamina. 

Into the Modern Era

By the 1800s, tattoos were objects of great fascination. They were still viewed as somewhat exotic, and for that reason, circuses often had an “Illustrated Man,” who had tattoos from neck to toe. 

In the early 1910s, sailors started using tattoos to detail their travels and personal stories, and from there, tattoos became more and more widespread.

Common navy tattoos were an anchor, a turtle to indicate that the sailor had crossed the equator, and a swallow to commemorate a trip that was over 5,000 miles.

In the 1920s, many women took to getting permanent makeup. Eyebrow and lipliner tattoos became very common, although more artistic tattoos were still not socially acceptable, so visits to a body modification shop were done in secret. 

American traditional tattoos in the style of Sailor Jerry led to the rise of tattoo acceptance in the 1940s, and from there, tattoos have been gradually growing in popularity. 

On the other hand, piercings were more easily accepted. Pierced ears were (and are) very common types of body modifications. Now you can even get high-quality children’s earrings online! 

Other types of piercings become more common in the 90s; however, ear piercings are still considered the best body modifications, which is one of the reasons they are so popular! 

Now You Know About the History of Body Modifications

Body modifications have a unique history. From the very dawn of man, we’ve been modifying our bodies for adornment, religious reasons, and social status. Next time you put in your earrings, it’s worth thinking about the thousands of years of human history that led up to that pair of earrings! 

If you enjoyed learning about the history of body modifications, we have lots more pieces like this on our blog. Check it out for more!