New research shows that what was previously thought of simply as dark smudges on 5,000-year-old mummies are actually the world's oldest tattoos.
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Some see tattoos as a mark of rebellion by young people, but it turns out this form of body modification is even older than we thought. According to research first published in the Journal of Archaeological Science, researchers have discovered tattoos on a male and female pair of Egyptian mummies that are 5,000 years old, from between 3351 and 3017 B.C.
The male mummy has a tattoo on his upper arm of two slightly overlapped horned animals thought to be a bull and a sheep. The female has a series of four small S-like shapes on her upper arm and shoulder. Her tattoos are more difficult to interpret, but some researchers are speculating that they could be some kind of baton used in ritual dances performed during the time period. Her tattoos may also denote status, bravery and magical knowledge.
These mummies weren’t just discovered though. They were actually found 100 years ago and have been hanging out in the British Museum. The mummies were found in Northern Egypt near the what is now the city of Luxor. The dark splotches on the mummies were thought to be unimportant.
It’s with the recent use of CT scanning, radiocarbon dating, and infrared imaging that the splotches were revealed to be tattoos.
This discovery is significant in that it pushes back the timeframe of when we first thought the practice of tattooing began by 1,000 years. That’s an entire millennium of potentially tattooed people.
The finding is also significant because previously archaeologists thought tattoos were restricted to women. The female mummy is known as Gebelein Woman and she is by far the oldest woman mummy found with a tattoo.
The name of the male mummy is Gebelein Man A and was approximately 18 – 21 years old. He is considered to be one of the best-preserved mummies in the world. Though he’s been on display for decades, new information on him has come out over time.
Discoveries in 2012 found that he likely died from a backstab wound.
His tattoo is also significant because the previous oldest surviving tattoos were mainly geometric shapes.
Maybe not so different from some people today, it’s believed his tattoos were possibly meant to project an image of macho strength.
Daniel Antoine is one of the lead authors of the research as well as a curator of physical anthropology at the British Museum. Antoine said that this recent discovery transforms our understanding of the way people during this era lived and how fascinating it is that “only now are we gaining new insights into the lives of these remarkably preserved individuals.”
Now, learn about the Chinese woman who is one of the most well-preserved mummies in the world. Then take a look at the oldest bracelet found alongside extinct human species.