South America: Peru
Painted wood and shell
These earplugs come from the Orejon culture of northern Peru. They are round discs of a lightweight wood, each heavily coated in a white pigment. Engraved black shells are set into the center of each plug and depict three concentric circles. Each plug is 4.5” in diameter and 0.75” thick.
The Orejon people (nowadays known as the Witotoans and the Bora), have a patrilineal social structure where kinship is traced through the men of a family. The Witotoan peoples primarily practice subsistence agriculture, growing manioc, pineapple, plantains, bananas, yams, papayas, mangos, peanuts, cacao, and other crops that thrive in the tropical South American environment.
Ear piercing is a very common form of body adornment popular in cultures all over the world, and the Witotoan people are no exception. For the Witotoan people, ear piercing is a practice restricted to men. Generally, boys get their ears pierced between 10 and 15 years old. A thin awl is used to pierce the ears, and small wooden pins are inserted into the holes. The boy is then responsible for carving the earlobe hole pins (each slightly wider in diameter than the last). These earlobe hole pins are periodically replaced with the next size larger in order to slowly grow the size of the holes.
The Witotoan people have cultural similarities to the Canela people, who live in nearby Brazil. The Canela believe that boys with open ears are more receptive to the knowledge revealed to them by their elders. In the words of Raimundo Roberto, a Canela man: “Our elders thought that an ear decoration made young men beautiful, and that those who received them would become even more handsome to young women.…He wouldn’t act foolishly, nor talk badly to anyone, because he knew that the women were always watching him. So, a man’s earring indicates that he is a tribesman of the highest caliber. That’s why I think earrings were a very serious matter for our elders.”
This type of ear piercing and use of earplugs is less common today among the Canela and the Witotoan peoples as it has been increasingly perceived by the non-native population as “ugly” or “subversive.” However, body adornment remains popular in many different cultures all over the world, including our own.
[Stephanie L. Allen]