It is impossible to say who the first people were with stretched ears, or why they did it. Today, many cultures (including our own!) practice the art of ear stretching for many different reasons. Religion, coming of age ceremonies, warding off evil, sexual enhancement and physical beauty are common motivations. However, that just barely scratches the surface as there are many other reasons, as well. People all over the world still practice ear stretching. From the Masai tribes in Kenya to the Huaorani tribe in the Amazon Basin, stretched ears are still a common sight. It is a fascinating testament of human culture that a Western youth can walk into a piercing shop to select stretched ear jewelry while a Hmong youth in Thailand selects from an array of silver tubes.
Men of the Dinka tribe in South Sudan scar their faces with three parallel lines across the forehead in a rugged display of courage to the tribe. Dinka boys receive their scars around adolescence to mark the transition to manhood, when they take the responsibilities of the other men in the nomadic tribe.
The vegetarian festival in Phuket sees a great deal of devotional activities in the Chinese communities. Trance and heavy piercing are part of the tradition. This festival is held on the Southern Thai island of Phuket every year in October. Most impressive are the processions that are held almost every morning during the ten days of the festival. The processions feature devotees of the different city shrines which act as "mediums" for the Chinese Gods. Some of the mediums put sharp objects (mostly metal objects) through their cheeks as an act of devotion for themselves and for the whole community. Other rituals that are performed include walking barefoot over hot coals and ascending ladders with bladed rungs.
All the mediums act involuntarily while in a trance, which allows them to endure the long piercing sessions. Although the wounds are said to be healed completely after the service, scars accumulate on their faces year after year.
In Africa, a lower lip plate is usually combined with the excision of the two lower front teeth, and sometimes all four. Among the Sara people and Lobi a plate is also inserted into the upper lip. Other tribes, such as the Makonde, used to wear a plate in the upper lip only. In many older sources it is reported that the plate's size is a sign of social or economical importance in some tribes. However, because of natural mechanical attributes of human skin, it seems that the plate's size often just depends on the stage of stretching the lip and the wishes of the wearer.
Myth has it that the women will break their necks or be unable to support them if the coils are removed but this is simply not true. Maeneng, above, is the matriarch of her village, and while she is the only one to wear 25 coils, she often helps adjust and repair the coils of other women.
Children are often given their first set of coils at age 5. This consists of a set weighing about 4 1/2 pounds, then new rings are slowly added. In actuality, the Kayan women do not have their necks elongated; instead, it works in the other direction. As the weight of the coils press down, the clavicle is lowered, and with each addition to the neck rings it falls further, compressing the rib cage as well. The shoulders finally fall away to give the appearance of an elongated neck.