In the United States, the UK, Australia, and other Western countries, the stretching of lip piercings is something fairly new, but in other areas of the world, lip stretching has been practiced for thousands of years. In Iran, the Sudan, and even parts of Central America, for example, lip plugging or plating were common practices millennia ago. Even in modern times, the practice of stretching the lip to accommodate a large plate is still commonly seen among tribal cultures, particularly in Ethiopia near the Omo River Valley. Two tribes from this area, the Mursi and the Surma, are known for the size of their beautiful and decorative lip plates.
In the Mursi tribe, girls will begin the process when they’re a teenager, usually around 15 to 17 years old. The initial “piercing’ is actually more like scalpelling, as the lip is cut to an incision size of at least a whole centimeter to accommodate a wooden pin. Afterwards, the lip will be stretched by the insertion of progressively larger wooden plugs which the girl will often carve herself. This method of stretching is not unlike what we would think of as “dead stretching,” although the difference in size from one plug to the next is under the control of whomever does the stretching, rather than having one specific pre-designated set of sizes. According to many who have studied the Mursi tribe, the size of the final healed modification appears to be up to the individual, and as it is a rather painful process, some will go larger than others. Once the bottom lip has been stretched to a size of approximately 4 to 6 centimeters in diameter, plates will begin to be used rather than plugs, and these will generally be handmade by their wearer out of clay.
The exact meaning and symbolism of the lip plates worn by Omo River tribes has been speculated upon again and again, but one of the more likely theories is that, much like standard piercing in the West, the stretching of the lip is a rite of passage designed to symbolize passing into adulthood or belonging to a particular social group.