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traditional Maasai ear piercings

Chances are you’ve probably heard of the Maasai, one of the largest and most well known ethnic groups in Eastern Africa.  The Maasai inhabit primarily Tanzania and Kenya, and according to recent census information, number in the hundreds of thousands.  They speak their own tribal language known as Maa, but also enjoy an education and sometimes fluency in both Swahili (the official language of Tanzania) and English.  The men of the Maasai community are raised to be skilled warriors, and their traditional dress includes brilliant red garments and beautifully intricate bead work, for which they’ve become quite famous.  One of the most interesting characteristics of traditional Masai culture though is the ear piercings.

 Kenya and Tanzania, Africa

Both men and women may have multiple piercings, but the most common is a set of stretched lobe piercings, combined with upper ear cartilage piercings, usually just under the upper helix.  The cartilage piercings may be stretched as well, though usually not by much, and are often worn with dangling beaded earrings.  In contrast to many other tribes who practice stretching, the Maasai also employ a very unique form of ear decoration.  Once the lobe has been stretched successfully, instead of continuing to wear wooden plugs, the enlarged fistula is wrapped in rows of beads, and sometimes weighted with a single, simple earring.

 stretched lobes and cartilage piercings

Matching bead work necklaces are also very popular, and more ornate dangling earrings with larger beads, stones, or metal discs are prevalent, mostly among females.  Those younger men and women who wear traditional braided hairstyles may also wear ornaments fixed into the hair, but for warriors this is mostly kept simple by tying the hair back and dressing it with red ochre, a type of volcanic clay.  In contrast to many of their neighboring ethnic groups, tattooing and scarification are almost non-existent amongst the Maasai.  Those that do have permanent body art will generally be elders or holy men, while younger warriors may use plant material or clay to fashion temporary skin markings, primarily for ceremonial purposes.

The Maasai are a perfect example of modern society’s encroachment on indigenous populations around the world, as some tribal members may at once wear traditional clothing and piercings, along with digital wrist watches and designer sandals.  Either way, their continuation of traditional modification practices makes them a visually stunning and unique African culture.

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