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The Oldest Tattoos in the World

Tattoos may seem relatively new in the United States, but cultures around the world have been tattooing for thousands of years. Researchers recently discovered that Ötzi, a well-preserved natural mummy found in the Alps, had about 61 tattoos. Ötzi’s body was frozen over 5,000 years ago and is so perfectly preserved that scientists have been able to analyze every part of his body, even taking samples of his stomach to learn about his diet. The discovery of his tattoos prompted researchers to more closely examine the roles and meanings of tattoos throughout history.

Finding Ötzi

In 1991, hikers found Ötzi partially frozen in the Alps on the Italian-Austrian border. The theory is that this specimen froze very quickly, preventing much of the deterioration that would usually happen postmortem. Along with the body, researchers found clothing and tools that gave invaluable clues as to how this man lived. Since its discovery, the body has had multiple examinations, including X-rays, imaging, and tissue samples. During examination, researchers discovered tattoos in various locations like the lower back and along his joints.

Discovering Ancient Tattoos

At first, it was difficult to detect any tattoos, as the man’s skin had darkened throughout time. Scientists discovered the tattoos using multispectral imaging, which captures images using energy and wavelengths outside of visible light — such as infrared or ultraviolet waves. According to tattoo historians, Ötzi’s tattoos did not use ink injected into the skin with needles. Instead, the markings were made by puncturing the top layer of skin and rubbing charcoal into the mark. The markings themselves are simple vertical or horizontal lines on his legs, chest, back, and joints.

What Ötzi’s Tattoos Mean

Studying the meaning of Ötzi’s tattoos is difficult for a number of reasons. The body may be in great condition considering its age, but marks on the skin are still hard to see. At the time of Ötzi’s death, writing systems were still in very early development, so there is no record of what markings might have meant. Researchers theorize that these were healing marks, since they were on areas where pain and damage were common. Some of the tattoos are on specific body parts where Ötzi himself has physical damage, which gives more support to the medicinal theory.

There is some debate as to whether the tattoos themselves were medicinal or if they served to complement other medicines. Some experts have noticed that the lines are placed in areas similar to acupuncture points. If these markings were therapeutic pressure points, they could indicate an acupuncture system that developed independently from the Chinese system most of us know about today. It’s not unheard of for tattoos to be used in healing processes — in fact, modern medicine uses tattoos to pinpoint radiation therapy.

It’s also possible that the tattoos had a cosmetic or spiritual purpose, although a comparison of Ötzi’s marks to those of a similarly-aged mummy from the Chinchorro people of Chile cast some doubt on this theory. Both specimens contain two of the oldest preserved tattoos ever seen, but they seem to have different purposes. The Chinchorro mummy’s tattoo features a line of dots just above his upper lip, suggesting a ritual or cosmetic meaning; the markings might have served as targets for energy or spirits. Ötzi’s tattoos seem to be more targeted to specific body parts, especially his joints and spine. This lends support to the medicinal theory, but isn’t enough to rule out the possibility of a spiritual purpose.

Tattoos Go Way Back

The discoveries of Ötzi and the Chinchorro mummy proved that tattoos are much older than researchers originally thought. While these two cases involve the oldest tattoos found, they are likely not the first tattoos to exist. Archaeologists have found art depicting people with tattoos — and tools for making tattoos — indicating that before Ötzi and the Chinchorro mummy, people were making and wearing tattoos for an untold length of time. It’s entirely possible that someday we might find another, older specimen showing tattoos that can teach us even more about the history of these fascinating body markings.