Archaeology

Ancient Tattoos: Oldest Mummies and Purposes of Their Skin Art

Scholars tell us that ancient tattoos were more than just artistic expressions.

Tattoos can be a definitive and permanent statement of personal identity and cultural heritage. We associate them with our modern society, but the truth is that men and women have embraced body art for many thousands of years. Ancient tattoos have been discovered on mummies from many old civilizations. Archaeologists are finding that these early examples of tattooing could provide a window of discovery into both the tribal hierarchies and healing practices of ancient man.

ancient tattoos

Ancient tattoo on the back of Ötzi the Iceman. South Tyrol Archaeological Museum.

The Oldest Tattooed Mummy

There has been some argument among researchers on the subject of ancient tattoos. Some believe that the oldest tattoo can be found on the mummified remains of a young Peruvian man who was believed to have lived 8,000 years ago.

In 1983, workers in the region of Arica, Chile were completing the construction of a water line when they made a fascinating discovery. They unearthed a number of graves containing mummified remains. Archaeologists were subsequently summoned to the site and recovered 96 bodies, most of which were remarkably preserved. The bodies belonged to the Chinchorro culture, and it was also determined that the mummification of most of these bodies was deliberate.

Chinchorro Man

One mummy in particular piqued the interest of researchers. This body belonged to a Chinchorro male who appears to have been between 35-40 years of age when he died. Located on the upper lip of the mummy, just to either side of the nose, are a series of black dots which form what seems to resemble a thin mustache. Interestingly, the presence of these markings is unique to this Chinchorro male, since to date, no other mummies from the culture bear similar ancient tattoos.

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(L) Illustration of Chinchorro man with facial tattoo, credit Lars Krutak. (R) Head of Chinchorro mummy, Wiki Commons, Pablo Trincado.

The discovery begs some important questions. What did tattoos symbolize to the Chinchorro culture? Do the tattoos on this mummy indicate some special social status or tribal leadership? The answers to these questions remain unclear. Therefore, researchers continue their work today in an effort to unmask the mystery of ancient tattoos and their symbolic significance.

For several years, scientific evidence supported a conclusion that the Chinchorro remains were the oldest tattooed mummy. This changed in 1991 with the accidental discovery of a mummy that became an international superstar in the archaeological community.

Ötzi the Iceman

On September 19, 1991, Helmut and Erika Simon were exploring a ridge in the Ötztal Alps near the border of Austria and Italy. As they veered off their primary path, the couple came upon a startling discovery. There before them were human remains encased in ice up to the torso. The explorers believed that they had found the body of a lost mountaineer.

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Ötzi the Iceman is now at the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

A local law enforcement official attempted to extract the body from the ice with crude tools. However, his efforts failed, and a team of expert mountaineers managed to recover the body four days after its discovery. Konrad Spindler, an archaeologist in Innsbruck, examined the remains.

The initial dating performed by Spindler indicated that the mummy was approximately 4,000 years old. Researchers named the mummy the “Tyrolean Iceman” or “Ötzi,” due to the region in which he rested all those years, and they began a detailed examination of his remains. Without question, the most intriguing aspect of the mummy were the presence of 61 ancient tattoos. Most of them were black lines configured into specific groups on various parts of Ötzi’s body.

Ötzi’s Tattoos Align With His Ailments

Experts determined that people used soot or fireplace ash to create the pigment for the ancient tattoos. Researchers also noted a strange correlation between the placement of Ötzi’s tattoos and evidence of physical degeneration. The man suffered from a variety of physical ailments which included osteochondrosis, a debilitating joint disorder. Hence, many researchers speculate that the mummy tattoos relate to acupuncture and an attempt to relieve discomfort.

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General areas of tattoos on Ötzi’s body. © South Tyrol Museum of Archeology /EURAC/ Samadelli/Staschitz.

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Tattoos corresponding to numbers from upper diagram. Credit: EURAC/M.Samadelli/M.Melis

In the intervening years since the discovery of the Chinchorro mummy and Ötzi the Iceman, sophisticated dating models have conclusively established that Ötzi is the older of the two. Thus, it appears the original estimates of the age of the Chinchorro mummy were in error. Most scholars now agree that Ötzi was born around 3300 BCE and is the oldest tattooed mummy.

Purposes of Ancient Tattoos

Once scholars fully analyzed the Chinchorro mummy and Ötzi, two interesting theories emerged about the purpose of ancient tattoos. Both of them suggested that these motifs were more than simple attempts to ornament the human body.

Social Status or Allegiance

As in the case of the Chinchorro mummy, the presence of ancient tattoos could reveal that body art was indicative of social status or tribal allegiance. There is some later provenance to support this theory, namely among Polynesians. The word tattoo actually derives from the Polynesian word tatau, meaning to write. To this day, the Samoan pe’a or tatau is a custom that they have honored for 2,000 years. Samoan tradition asserts that the first tatau originated from two Fijian women, Taema and Tilafaiga. Interestingly, Samoans still use soot as a pigment for many tattoos. This also corresponds with the manner in which Ötzi received his tattoos.

Because the Chinchorro mummy from Chile is the only one of its kind to sport ancient tattoos, there may be some basis to theorize that this male was a leader of the tribe. Also, the idea that only one Chinchorro would have adorned himself with tattoos as mere body art is implausible.

Relief From Pain

Ötzi the Iceman presents a more interesting puzzle, since there is ample evidence suggesting that his ancient tattoos may result from primitive medical procedures. If this is true, it means that acupuncture could have existed long before what experts believe to be its earliest use in China around 1000 BCE.

According to an article in the Smithsonian magazine, anthropologist Lars Krutak asserts that 80% of Ötzi’s tattoos align with classic Chinese acupuncture points for the treatment of rheumatism. Hence, in 2011, a Denmark tattoo artist and friend of Krutak’s named Colin Dale decided to conduct a simple experiment. Dale applied a series of tattoos to a client that suffered from numerous ailments including asthma and rheumatism. Additionally, an acupuncturist assisted with the placement of the tattoos.

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Tattoo on Ötzi’s calf. Credit:© South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology/EURAC/Samadelli/Staschitz.

Dale reported that within three months of receiving the tattoos, the client’s symptoms had either diminished or disappeared entirely. While this study did not satisfy strict requirements of the scientific method, it does provide food for thought about the purpose of body art on the oldest tattooed mummy.

Tattoos Tell Stories

What the current knowledge of ancient tattoos demonstrates is that they are a unique form of narrative that is traceable to the earliest civilizations of mankind. Even today, tattoos tell a story. Whether they reveal aspects of an individual’s character, their medical history, or their standing within a certain culture, tattoos help to define those who receive them.

References:
Archaeology
CNN
University College London
Smithsonian Insider
History of Tattooing
Ötzi

Scotty Rushing

Scotty Rushing is a professional freelance writer and published author. His works have placed in the bestseller category at Amazon on multiple occasions. Scotty lives in Louisiana with his dog, Bentley, where he is currently working on a full-length novel and other creative projects.