How old is the tattoo culture

The man with the bright red hair has always been special. In the British Museum, the approximately 5350 year old mummy from Gebelein, a small town in Upper Egypt forty kilometers south of Thebes, has been one of the highlights of the permanent exhibition for almost a hundred years, as it is one of the oldest preserved mummies of all. But when the researchers led by museum curator Daniel Antoine examined strange dark spots on their skin with the help of infrared cameras, they made a spectacular discovery. Two horned animals could be seen in the infrared light one behind the other on the right upper arm of the man, a large bull and a mighty mane sheep. They are the oldest known tattoos in the world, as the researchers say in the current issue of the specialist magazine Journal of Archaeological Science write. A second female mummy, similarly old, also had dark tattoos on the right shoulder and back, a kinked line and four S-shaped symbols in a row. Never before had one found similar old tattoos on a woman.

The researchers determined the age of the mummies by examining the hair of the two mummies made of gelein using the C14 method. This determines the proportion of radioactive carbon isotopes in organic materials. The measurements showed a value of a maximum of 5351 years, two more of the seven examined mummies from the British Museum are almost 6000 years old. However, no skin decorations were found on them. All seven mummies had once been buried in shallow graves directly in the desert sand, equipped with grave goods such as jugs or clay bowls, the man and the woman in an embryonic position. The hot desert sand quickly dried out the body and preserved it over the millennia without the need for complex embalming, as was not customary until later in ancient Egypt.

Such old body drawings are extremely rare

The two mummies replace the previous tattoo record holder Ötzi, who is a little younger at 5300 years. The ice man, however, remains clearly ahead in terms of the number of tattoos, he comes to 61, mainly geometric figures, lines and points that a tattoo artist once scratched into his body and then colored with a kind of charcoal powder. Ötzi is interested in the places: The decorations can be found on wrists, Achilles heels, knees or chest, which is why researchers like Albert Zink from the EURAC Institute for Mummies in Bolzano also believe there is a medical reason - tattoos as pain therapy. Ötzi could have treated his back and joint pain in this way, maybe it was a kind of acupuncture. It is difficult to say whether the Egyptian tattoos had a similar meaning. As with Ötzi, these were not only painted on the surface, but stabbed deep into the skin and the wounds then blackened with a powder containing soot.

In principle, such old body drawings are extremely rare, in Africa only about a thousand years younger decorations on human skin were known until the discovery in London. In China, tattoos did not appear until about 3200 years ago, and then also among the Scythians on horseback.

Since no written sources exist about the two tattooed mummies, scientists can only infer the possible meaning from the context of the finds. Researchers from the British Museum suspect a cultural background to the tattoos in the Gebelein mummies. The patterns on the female mummy, in particular, may suggest this. Both the four S-shaped patterns and objects that are reminiscent of the kinked line on the woman's shoulder appear on a clay jug from the so-called predynastic period in Egypt, which is also in the London collection.

"As on the woman's tattoo, the S-lines never appear individually, but always in groups," says Daniel Antoine from the British Museum. They were placed conspicuously on the shoulder, "so they should also be seen by others". The second line could be a throwing device or a baton or clapper, such as were once used in ritual dances. The researchers also discovered the mane sheep with its distinctive horns on a make-up palette from the predynastic period, a ceremonial object. Bull and sheep also appear on rock carvings, but these are more difficult to date. Antoine believes that both animals were once symbols of strength and masculinity.

But the interpretations remain extremely vague. Scientific research can, however, provide valuable pieces of the puzzle. With the red-haired man from Gebelein, examinations with the computer tomograph showed that he once died violently; he was killed by a stab from behind when he was around 20 years old. So he could have suffered a fate similar to Ötzi, who was also fatally hit from behind by an arrow.