Archaeologists have unearthed the earliest known evidence of ear and lip ornamentation in the Neolithic period at the site of Boncuklu Tarla in south-east Türkiye. The findings, which date back to around 10,000 BC, shed new light on the body modification practices of early sedentary communities and challenge existing narratives about the origins of such practices in South-west Asia.

The excavations at Boncuklu Tarla, carried out between 2012 and 2017, have yielded an exceptionally prolific and diverse assemblage of personal ornaments, including more than 100,000 artefacts. Among these, researchers have identified over 100 disc or nail-like objects, similar to modern and ethnographic examples of labrets, which are worn through piercings beneath the lower lip.

These artefacts, crafted from materials such as limestone, chlorite, flint, obsidian, and copper, have been found in various architectural contexts and graves of adult males and females dating from the Pre-Pottery Neolithic A (PPNA) to the Pre-Pottery Neolithic B (PPNB) periods.

The contextual evidence from the graves has been crucial in interpreting the function of these ornaments. Many were found in situ, in proximity to the head, indicating their association with ear and lip perforations. Some skeletons even exhibited tooth wear characteristic of labret use, further supporting the hypothesis that different forms of ornaments were used to transgress bodily boundaries.

Dr. Emma Baysal, a leading expert on Neolithic personal ornamentation, emphasizes the significance of these findings: The discovery of labrets and ear ornaments in situ at Boncuklu Tarla provides the earliest contextual evidence for the use of body augmentation requiring perforation of bodily tissue in South-west Asia. This challenges existing narratives that place initial engagement with body perforation practices around the middle of the seventh millennium BC.

The use of labrets and ear ornaments at Boncuklu Tarla required a permanent alteration of the body, with perforations of at least 7mm in diameter. This practice, observed only in adults, suggests that body modification was an age-related activity, possibly associated with rites of passage or social status.

The deliberate infliction of pain and the bridging of the divide between the external and internal self raise intriguing questions about the structuring of identities in early sedentary communities.

While labrets and ear ornaments were common in some regions of South-west Asia during the Early Neolithic, their use was not ubiquitous. Notably, there is no evidence of their use at Neolithic sites in central Anatolia, although some examples have been found in western Anatolia and the Aegean.

The research team at Boncuklu Tarla, led by Dr. Emma Baysal, believes that this discovery will help disambiguate the terminology surrounding these artefacts and open the way for a re-evaluation of existing South-west Asian Neolithic data.

By exploring regional ‘labret grammars’, archaeologists may gain a deeper understanding of the role of body modification in the communication of individual and group identities within these early communities.

As excavations at Boncuklu Tarla continue, researchers hope to uncover further insights into the raw material choices and the relationship between corporal ornamentation traditions and general ornamentation activities.

This discovery not only sheds light on the earliest known evidence of ear and lip ornamentation but also highlights the complex and diverse ways in which Neolithic communities constructed appearance and structured identity through body modification practices.


Kodaş E, Baysal EL, Özkan K., Bodily boundaries transgressed: corporal alteration through ornamentation in the Pre-Pottery Neolithic at Boncuklu Tarla, Türkiye. Antiquity. Published online 2024:1-20. doi:10.15184/aqy.2024.28

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