Ear piercing is one of the oldest known forms of body modification, with artistic and written references dating back to early history in cultures all over the world. Gold earrings, as well as other jewelry made of gold, lapis lazuli, and carnelian, were discovered in the early Dynastic period at the ancient sites of Lothal, India, and the Sumerian Royal Cemetery at Ur. Hoop earrings made of gold, silver, or bronze were popular during the Minoan Civilization (2000–1600 BCE), and examples can be found on frescoes on the Greek island of Santorini. Hoop earrings with conical pendants were popular in Bronze Age Greece during the late Minoan and early Mycenaean periods. Archeological evidence from Persepolis in ancient Persia shows early evidence of men wearing earrings. The carved images of Persian Empire soldiers displayed on some of the palace's surviving walls show them wearing an earring.
According to Howard Carter's description of Tutankhamun's tomb, the Pharaoh's earlobes were perforated, but no earrings were inside the wrappings, despite the tomb containing some. The ears of the burial mask were also perforated, but the holes were filled with gold discs. That implies that similar to Carter's time in Egypt, earrings were only worn by children at the time.
Other early evidence of earring wear is evident in the Biblical record. In Exodus 32:1–4, it is written that while Moses was up on Mount Sinai, the Israelites demanded that Aaron make a god for them. It is written that he commanded them to bring their sons' and daughters' earrings (and other pieces of jewelry) to him so that he might comply with their demand (c. 1500 BCE). By the classical period, including in the Middle East, as a general rule, they were considered exclusively female ornaments. Earrings were worn primarily by women during certain periods in Greece and Rome, though they were popular among men in earlier periods and had resurfaced later on, as famous figures such as Plato were known to have worn them.
Earrings were a tradition for both Ainu men and women, but in the late 19th century, the Government of Meiji Japan prohibited Ainu men from wearing them. Nomadic Turkic tribes and Koreans both wore earrings. From ancient times to the present, lavish ear ornaments have remained popular in India. During the Silla, Goryeo, and Joseon dynasties, both men and women wore earrings.
During the English Renaissance in the 1590s, earrings became popular among English courtiers and gentlemen in Western Europe. According to the Description of England, a document published in 1577 by clergyman William Harrison, "some lusty courtiers and gentlemen of courage do wear either ring of gold, stones, or pearls in their ears." A pierced earlobe was a sign among sailors that the wearer had sailed around the world or had crossed the equator.
The practice reappeared in the Western world in the late 1950s or early 1960s. Teenage girls have been known to hold ear-piercing parties in which they perform the procedure on one another. By the mid-1960s, some doctors were offering ear piercing as a service. Simultaneously, Manhattan jewelry stores were some of the earliest commercial, non-medical locations for getting an ear piercing.
In the late 1960s, ear piercing began to make inroads among men through the hippie and gay communities, although they had been popular among sailors for decades (or longer).
Ear piercing had become popular among women by the early 1970s, creating a larger market for the procedure. Earring manufacturers would sponsor ear-piercing events at department stores across the country. A nurse or other trained person would perform the procedure at these events, either by hand pushing a sharpened and sterilized starter earring through the earlobe or by using an ear-piercing instrument modified from the design used by physicians.
Amateur piercings, sometimes with safety pins or multiple piercings, became popular in the punk rock community in the late 1970s. By the 1980s, male popular music performers with pierced ears had helped establish a men's fashion trend. Many professional athletes later adopted this strategy. In the 1980s, British men began piercing both ears; George Michael of Wham! was a notable example. During wham! he was frequently seen wearing small gold hoop earrings. When he first went solo with his iconic debut album "Faith," he wore a cross earring on his left ear. It is now widely accepted for teenage and pre-teen boys to have both ears pierced as a fashion statement.
Multiple ear piercings first became popular in mainstream America in the 1970s. Initially, women would wear a second set of earrings in their earlobes, and men would double-pierce a single earlobe. Asymmetric styles with an increasing number of piercings became popular, eventually giving rise to the cartilage piercing trend. The practice of piercing both ears of newborn babies is common in Central America, particularly in Costa Rica.
Since then, a wide range of specialized cartilage piercings has gained popularity. Tragus piercing, antitragus piercing, rook piercing, industrial piercing, helix piercing, orbital piercing, daith piercing, and conch piercing are examples of these. Furthermore, earlobe stretching, which has been practiced in indigenous cultures for thousands of years, first appeared in Western society in the 1990s and is now a fairly common sight. However, when compared to standard ear piercing, these types of piercing are still uncommon.