Imprimir Republish


The world’s oldest figural tattoos

Trustees Of The British Museum The mummified body of Gebelein Man A under natural light, and the tattoos on his right arm observed under infrared lightTrustees Of The British Museum

Adorning the body with tattoos has been fashionable for longer than previously thought. Two naturally mummified bodies displayed at the British Museum in London have what archaeologists consider to be the earliest known figural tattoos. The two mummies (a man and a woman) were found in shallow pits in Gebelein, southern Egypt, at the end of the nineteenth century. Along with four other mummies excavated at the same archaeological site, they have been on display for decades, but the tattoos were only recently identified during part of a new research and conservation program run by the museum. Researchers used infrared photography to observe the tattoos, which are barely visible under natural light. Gebelein Man A, the male mummy who was killed by a stab wound to the back, has two horned animals on his right arm. The researchers believe they represent a bull and a ram, symbols of strength and power. Gebelein Woman, meanwhile, has one tattoo on her shoulder and another on her right arm—the oldest tattoos found on a female body—one of which is a sequence of four symbols similar to the letter S (Journal of Archaeological Science, March 1). Carbon dating suggests the Gebelein Man and Woman lived between 5,400 and 5,000 years ago, prior to the unification of Egypt under the command of the first pharaoh, Menes. In a press release, Daniel Antoine, curator of physical anthropology at the museum, said the findings indicate that the practice of tattooing the body in Africa began a millennium earlier than previously thought. These figural tattoos are approximately contemporary with what is still considered the oldest example in the world: the geometric designs on the body of Ötzi, the iceman found in the Alps between Austria and Italy.