5,000-year-old Mummies Sport Tattoos

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March 1, 2018

New investigations of 5,000-year-old mummies have revealed the world's oldest figurative tattoos.

The mummies, one male and female, were found about a hundred years ago in Gebelein, in what is now Upper Egypt, south of Luxor. Radiocarbon dating on the bones put them living between 3351 B.C. and 3017 B.C.

Ancient tattoos

Researchers at the British Museum, where the mummies have been, found tattoos of a bull and a sheep and a set of S-shaped motifs. Significantly, the male body had tattoos; a lack of such tattoos on male mummies had convinced historians that only ancient women wore tattoos. The man's tattoo, revealed by recent infrared scanning, is of overlapping horns of a bull with a long tail and a sheep with a humped shoulder.

The woman's most prominent tattoos are in the shape of an S and run down her right shoulder. Another L-shaped image depicts batons used in dance, researchers said.

The ink used to make the tattoos was soot, researchers said.

Only Ötzi the Ice Man, who lived about 3370 B.C., has been found to have older tattoos. His are geometric in nature, not the figurative kind, as found on the Gebelein mummies. Tattooing in Africa had been thought to have begun about 4,000 years ago.

Details are in the Journal of Archaeological Science.

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