I’ve written before about the increasing number of tattoos you see these days — with reports estimating that about one-third of Americans are sporting ink — and what a cultural change it represents from the United States of my youth. (Arrows and infinity signs are popular these days, by the way.)
It turns out, though, that the current craze for “body art” has a very ancient lineage — and its known history has just gotten even older.
Researchers recently determined that two Egyptian mummies in the British Museum have tattoos. The mummies are 5,000 years old and date back to pre-dynastic Egypt, which pushes the date of the earliest known use of figurative body art, rather than geometric patterns, back by an additional 1,000 years. One of the mummies is a woman who has a series of four “s” shapes — perhaps coiled snakes? — inked on her shoulder, which may have been symbols of status, bravery, and magical knowledge. The other mummy is a man who has depictions of a wild bull and a sheep on his upper arm. The bull figure was supposed to denote power and virility, but it apparently didn’t help the male mummy, who died of a stab wound to the back when he was between 18 and 21 years old.
The markings were made using a technique that would be considered incredibly crude by modern standards. The British Museum thinks the tattoos were produced using soot as the coloring agent and needles of copper or bone to insert the soot under the skin.
There’s no way to know, of course, whether figurative tattoos have an even more ancient history, because we don’t have preserved bodies going back 10,000 years. The discoveries of cave paintings made by the earliest human ancestors, however, suggests to me that the creation of figurative art is instinctive and has played a key role in human development. It just makes sense that the cave painters would also have experimented with decorating an actual body or two. I’d bet that if you invented a time machine and went back to check out the humans of 10,000 or 15,000 years ago, you’d see your fair share of ink.