The practice of tattooing appears to be 1,000 years older than anyone knew.
Since his discovery about 100 years ago, an Egyptian mummy housed in the British Museum appeared to have nothing more special than a dark smudge on his right arm. But recent infrared imaging revealed the outlines of two animals in the skin: a bull and a Barbary sheep. The discovery makes these the oldest figurative tattoos ever found.
Soon after, anthropologists found symbols inked into the shoulder of a second mummy, a female from the same time and region. She wore a more abstract tattoo, a series of four tilde-shaped lines.
The mummies had been unearthed from shallow graves, naturally preserved by the desert climate. In both cases, the tattoos were likely made of soot and probably served as a status symbol. Anthropologists speculate that the man’s tattoos represented strength and virility, like the bull in ancient Egyptian legends, while the woman’s tattoos signified bravery and knowledge of magic.
For the people studying these tattooed mummies, the symbols in the ink hold meaning as well.
Here’s Pallab Ghosh, writing for BBC News:
Daniel Antoine, one of the lead authors of the research paper and the British Museum’s Curator of Physical Anthropology, said that the discovery had “transformed” our understanding of how people lived in this era.
“Only now are we gaining new insights into the lives of these remarkably preserved individuals. Incredibly, at over 5,000 years of age, they push back the evidence for tattooing in Africa by a millennium,” he told BBC News.
Until now, the oldest known tattoo belonged to a mummy found in the Alps, nicknamed Ötzi, who lived earlier than 3100 B.C. and whose skin was marked with a series of lines. The discovery of these more ornately tattooed ancient Egyptians suggests that tattooing was likely widespread across the ancient world, much like it is today.