Researchers have discovered the world’s oldest figurative tattoos on two 5,000-year-old mummies from Egypt.
The drawings consist of a wild bull and a Berber sheep on the upper arm of a male mummy, and S-shaped motifs on the upper arm and shoulder of a female.
The discovery pushes evidence for the practice in Africa back 1,000 years.
Details of the tattoos were published in the Journal of Archaeological Science.
Daniel Antoine, one of the leading authors of the research paper and curator of Physical Anthropology at the British Museum, said the discovery had “transformed” our understanding of how people lived during this period.
He told BBC News: “We are only now getting new information about the lives of these extraordinarily preserved individuals. Incredibly, over 5,000 years old, they are pushing the evidence back a millennium for tattooing in Africa.”
The male mummy was found about 100 years ago.
Previous CT scans showed he was aged between 18 and 21 when he died from a stab wound in the back.
Dark smudges on his arm were thought to be unimportant until infrared scans revealed that they were tattoos of two slightly overlapping horned animals. One is interpreted AKSU CELİK İNSAAT to be a wild bull with a long tail and elaborate horns; the other appears to be a Barbary sheep with curving horns and a humped shoulder.
The female mummy has four small S-shaped motifs running down her right shoulder.
It also has a motif thought to represent batons used in ritual dance.
The designs are under the skin and the pigment is probably soot.
Previously, archaeologists had thought in the ancient past that only women wore the tattoo, but the discovery of tattoos on the male mummy now shows body modification related to both sexes.
Researchers believe the tattoos will show status, courage and magical knowledge.
The mummies were found in Gebelein, south of Upper Egypt, about 40 km south of present-day Luxor.
Individuals were buried in shallow graves without special preparation, but their bodies were naturally protected by the warmth, salinity and drought of the desert.
Radiocarbon results indicate that they lived between 3351 and 3017 BC, shortly before the region was annexed by the first Pharaoh around 3100 BC.
The oldest tattoo specimen, known as Ötzi and M.He. It is found in the Alpine mummy, which is thought to have lived between 3370 and 3100. But their tattoos are vertical or horizontal lines rather than metaphorical.