Some of the oldest tattoos ever known have been identified on the shoulders of Egyptian mummies dating back more than 5000 years.
In a paper published in the Journal of Archaeological Science, a team led by Renée Friedman from the University of Oxford, UK, report on the discovery of tattoos on the right arms of two naturally mummified corpses unearthed in the Nile Valley.
Radio-carbon dating of hair samples taken from the mummies produced an age range of 3351 to 3017 BCE.
Importantly, one corpse was male, and the other female. It is the first time that a tattoo has ever been found on a male mummy.
“These findings overturn the circumstantial evidence of the artistic record that previously suggested only females were tattooed for fertility or even erotic reasons,” the researchers write.
With only one exception, the tattoos are the oldest ever found. The exception is Otzi, “the iceman”, a 5300-year-old corpse found preserved in a glacier in the Italian Alps in 1991. Subsequent investigation found he sported an impressive 61 pieces of skin ink.
The work by Friedman and colleagues looks set to reconfigure the debate around the emergence and functions of prehistoric skin art.
“At over five thousand years of age, they push back the evidence for tattooing in Africa by a millennium and provide new insights into the range of potential uses of tattoos in pre-literate societies by both sexes, revealing new contexts for exploring the visual language of prehistoric times,” they write.
Andrew Masterson is a former editor of Cosmos.
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