The world’s oldest figurative tattoos have been discovered on two 5,000-year-old mummies from Egypt.
The upper arm of a female mummy had tattoos depicting a wild bull and a Berber sheep, while the shoulder and upper arm of a female mummy bore “S” – shaped motifs.
The findings, whose details are published in the Journal of Archaeological Science, push back evidence from 1,000 years ago for tattooing in Africa, and only in Predynastic Egypt – the country’s first Pharaoh around 3100 BC.
Daniel Antoine, one of the lead researchers on the project and curator of Physical Anthropology at the British Museum, said: “the symbols being forged are quite unusual.” Quoth.
A sign of status, magical power or just art?
Antoine says that animals in man, especially the Bull, are associated with status, strength and masculinity. Both horned animals are often depicted in predynastic Egyptian art. Similarly, s motifs passing vertically over the woman’s right shoulder were used in pottery decoration at the time.
Antoine points out that according to radiocarbon dating, the mummies lived between 3351 and 3017 BC, dating back to the period before the use of Egyptian hieroglyphs. This makes it difficult to determine the meanings behind the symbols, as there are parallels with images found elsewhere that all researchers need to continue.
He guesses that the tattoos symbolize a combination of things: “the state of reference is something more complex, like maybe courage for animals, but also cult or magical knowledge or protection.”
” They were very sophisticated people 5,000 years ago, ” he said. “There is no reason why the logic of getting tattoos on your body is not as versatile as it is today.”
Ancient tattoo artists
Research suggests that the forging process will be similar to what it is today: using a needle to add a carbon – based element – possibly soot-under the skin. “They were very good craftsmen, so they would be very good at beating,” Antoine said.
Previously, archaeologists thought the tattoo was applied only to women, for fertility or erotic reasons. The new discovery proves it involves both sexes.
The mummies, officially known as “Gebelein Man A” and “Gebelein Woman,” have been part of the British Museum collection for years from the town in the southern part of Upper Egypt near Luxor, where they were first discovered.
The Gebelein Man has been on display since its discovery 100 years ago and is one of the museum’s most popular attractions. A post-mortem examination in 2012 shows he was between 18 and 21 when he died and suffered a stab wound to his back. Tufts of Redhead hair are still visible on the scalp.