Getting inked has been around longer than you’d think. While the idea of tattooing certainly seems like it would’ve been a more recent development, archaeologists have discovered quite the opposite. Tattooing has a long history that likely goes back more than 10,000 years! Just in the last few hundred years, scientists have made some fascinating discoveries about ancient humans and tattoos. Below, we’ll dive into some of the most fascinating tattoo discoveries from ancient history.
1.Ötzi’s the Iceman: Oldest Known Tattoos
One of the oldest pieces of evidence of tattoos on ancient people is from Ötzi the Iceman . Ötzi was discovered in 1991 by hikers in the Ötzal Alps between Austria and Italy. After significant analysis, scientists determined that Ötzi lived approximately 5,200 years ago and was safely preserved in ice thanks to the freezing cold temperatures in the Ötzal Alps. As part of the analysis, scientists discovered that Ötzi had 61 tattoos on various parts of his body, making them the oldest known tattoos to date.
Ötzi’s tattoos are different types of decorative black lines primarily on his wrist, back, torso, and legs. Researchers have divided these lines into 19 distinct groups, suggesting these may be 19 separate tattoos. Though scientists are unclear as to the meaning of these tattoos, their existence proves that tattooing has been an important part of many cultures for thousands of years.
A closer look at some of Iceman’s geometric tattoos. ( EURAC/M.Samadelli/M.Melis)
2.The Intricate Princess of Ukok, Lover of Deer
The Princess of Ukok, sometimes called the Siberian Ice Maiden , was a mummy discovered in present-day Russia in 1993. Researchers estimate that the young woman lived around 2,500 years ago and was likely an important individual in Pazyryk society, as she was buried in expensive clothing surrounded by six bridled and saddled horses. One of the most fascinating parts of her discovery was the significant number of tattoos covering her body.
Tattoos found on the princess’s body include scroll patterns and several mythical creatures resembling types of deer. Unlike most other ancient tattoos, which are primarily made up of lines and dots, the princess’s tattoos display vivid imagery. Researchers say they are some of the most pigmented and intricate ancient tattoos ever discovered.
The Siberian Ice Maiden’s 2,500-year-old tattoos are remarkably well preserved and detailed ( Public Domain )
3.Celestial Mummies from Tarim, China
Archaeologists discovered a collection of naturally-preserved mummies in China’s Tarim Basin in the early 20th century. These mummies range between 2,100 and 3,900 years old and were found covered in several tattoos. Most of the tattoos found on the Tarim mummies are still extremely clear due to the method of tattooing used on these individuals. Researchers believe the tattoos were done using a deep puncture technique, which resulted in extremely dark lines that are still easily seen today.
Most of the images tattooed onto these individuals included ovals, scroll patterns, the sun, and crescent moons. The high number of these celestial-themed tattoos suggests that they were done for religious purposes. Two of the mummies, a man and a woman, had crescent moons and suns tattooed on their faces and heads. Researchers believe these two may have been the leaders of this group of religious followers.
4.The Chinchorro Man’s Permanent Mustache
In 1917, German archaeologist Max Uhle discovered a collection of artificially-preserved ancient mummies in modern-day Chile. One of these mummies, commonly called the Chinchorro Man , is famous for having the oldest known tattoo in the Americas. It was previously the oldest known tattoo in the world, before Ötzi and some additional mummies were discovered with older tattoos.
The Chinchorro Man’s tattoo is unlike many other tattoos, as he has a mustache tattoo! Along the man’s upper lip is a mustache-like dotted line that has not been seen on any other mummy discovered in the region. Researchers believe that this tattoo may have been a unique status symbol among the Chinchorro people, signifying a high level in society or allegiance to a specific tribe.
5.The Tattooed Priestesses of Hathor, Goddess of Fertility and Pleasure
The remains of Amunet, an Egyptian priestess of the goddess Hathor, were discovered in the 1890s. She was found with the mummified bodies of several other priestesses, all of which were over 4,000 years old and had several tattoos on their bodies. Amunet’s were the most detailed, as she had a significant amount of tattooing on her torso and lower abdomen, in addition to her arms and thighs. Although researchers originally believed these tattoos were a symbol of prostitution, they now believe they were related to Hathor’s guidance over women in childbirth.
Detail of the abdominal tattoos visible on a Dynasty XI mummy of Amunet, from Fouquet, 1898 ( Public Domain )
6.Ancient American Tattooing Kits of Points, Bones, and Shells
There have been several ancient tools discovered that scientists believe may have been used for tattooing. While some of the oldest have been found in Egypt, others have been discovered in the Americas. Egyptian tattooing tools typically consisted of sharp points set in wooden handles and were made as early as 3000 BC. In 1985, an ancient tattoo kit made from sharpened turkey bones and pigment-dyed seashells was discovered in Fernvale, Tennessee . Researchers estimate that this kit is somewhere between 5,520 and 3,620 years old, and was used by Native Americans to tattoo for religious and cultural purposes.
Ancient tattoo kit bundle unearthed at Fernvale site in Williamson County, Tennessee ( Aaron Deter-Wolf and Tanya M. Peres )
From Turkey Bones to Electric Machines
Tattooing has clearly been around for a long time. Nowadays, the process is not typically performed using sharp pointed tools like the ancient Egyptians. The process is much quicker with modern-day electrical tools, making tattooing faster and (somewhat) less painful. It’s also much cleaner, with less infection risk than tattooing in ancient times. Thanks to technological advancements, tattoos have become much more detailed and artistic than the styles created using ancient tools. You’ve got to wonder: what designs would ancient people have chosen today?
Top image: People have been decorating their bodies with tattoos for centuries. These ancient tattoos discoveries provide insight into the people and cultures of the ancient world. Source: kichigin19 / Adobe Stock
By Lex Leigh
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Pinkowski, J. September 15, 2021. Ötzi the Iceman: What we know 30 years after his discovery . History. Available at: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/history/article/tzi-the-iceman-what-we-know-30-years-after-his-discovery
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