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The World’s Oldest Tattoos Are on the Weathered Skin of an Alpine Ice Mummy

When hikers in the Alps stumbled upon the mummy known as Ötzi the Iceman along the Austrian–Italian border in 1991, the body was so well preserved that they feared they’d discovered the corpse of a fellow mountaineer.

Detail of a wrist tattoo on Otzi the Iceman
Detail of a wrist tattoo on Ötzi the Iceman, the oldest-known tattooed mummy in the world (© South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology/EURAC/Samadelli/Staschitz)

When hikers in the Alps stumbled upon the mummy known as Ötzi the Iceman along the Austrian–Italian border in 1991, the body was so well preserved that they feared they’d discovered the corpse of a fellow mountaineer. Later research revealed he died around 3105 BCE. In the decades since, scientists have thoroughly studied Ötzi, who is preserved at the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology in Bolzano, Italy. Their research continues to reveal unknown details about ancient European life, including mapping Ötzi’s 61 tattoos last year with new non-invasive multispectral imaging.

Last month, an international team of scientists confirmed that the horizontal lines and x-shapes formed with charcoal embedded beneath his skin are the oldest-known examples of tattoos. Their research was published in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reportsand shared by Smithsonian Science News this week. Under the leadership of Aaron Deter-Wolf at the Tennessee Division of Archaeology, the team looked into a 5,500-year history of tattooing through mummies both naturally and deliberately preserved around the world.

An illustration of the face tattoo of the Chinchorro mummy (courtesy Lars Krutak)
An illustration of the face tattoo of the Chinchorro mummy (courtesy Lars Krutak)

Ötzi’s main contender for the oldest tattoos title was a Chinchorro mummy found in Chile in 1983, who has a delicate mustache of dots tattooed on his upper lip. Radiocarbon data had previously indicated this mummy was older than the famous Iceman, and was poised to posthumously claim Ötzi’s tattoo throne. However, as the researchers state, comparisons of the radiocarbon dates “clearly identify Ötzi as the oldest tattooed human remains discovered to date, antedating the Chinchorro mummy Mo-1 T28 C22 by at least 500 years. Previous scholarly misidentifications of the Chilean specimen as the oldest tattooed remains appear to be the result of misreading the radiocarbon data.”

Kristina Killgrove at Forbes pointed out that artistic depictions of people with tattoos, as well as tools used in tattooing, indicate tattooing long predates the Iceman. So although Ötzi keeps his oldest tattoo title for now, it’s likely that a sinewy rival will emerge from the glaciers, bogs, deserts, or another of the world’s mummy-ripe environments. What’s interesting, beyond the date comparison, is that the two mummies show tattooing evolving independently in different parts of the globe, and for different purposes. While the Chinchorro mummy’s dot-mustache seems ornamental, the placement of Ötzi’s tattoos along his degenerating joints and spine suggest a medicinal purpose. And both examples confirm that tattooing is a historical part of our visual culture, with purposes as diverse as the individuals who practiced this body modification.

A map of the 19 main areas of Ötzi's tattoos (courtesy EURAC/M.Samadelli/M.Melis)
A map of the 19 main areas of Ötzi’s tattoos (courtesy EURAC/M.Samadelli/M.Melis)
Imaging of Ötzi's tattoos (courtesy EURAC/M.Samadelli/M.Melis)
Imaging of Ötzi’s tattoos (courtesy EURAC/M.Samadelli/M.Melis)
Detail of one of Ötzi's tattoos (© South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology/EURAC/Samadelli/Staschitz)
Detail of one of Ötzi’s tattoos (© South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology/EURAC/Samadelli/Staschitz)

h/t Smithsonian Science News

Read more about “The World’s Oldest Tattoos” in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports.

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