If you got a tattoo, what kind of ink would you choose and why? The answer might reflect everything from a spur-of-the-moment decision to a poignant tribute to a loved one. But you may not realize that tattoos have an ancient—and fascinating—history.
The word “tattoo” was imported into English thanks to Captain James Cook, who noted the practice, and Tahitian word “tatau” describing it, in Polynesia in the 18th century. But scholars agree that the practice far predates the word itself—and the skin of ancient mummies proves their point.
Who are these inked-up mummies, and what can they teach us about ancient cultures? Here’s a not-at-all exhaustive look at some of the most intriguing tattoos that archaeologists have found from the past and what they tell us about the ancient world.
Tattoos in ancient Western Europe
The earliest evidence of tattooing is inked into the body of Ötzi the Iceman. Europe’s most famous mummy, Ötzi (also known as “The Iceman”) was discovered by German hikers in the Alps in 1991. Ötzi lived in Tyrol, a mountainous region that borders modern-day Italy and Switzerland, about 5,200 years ago, and after he died his body, and its tattoos, were preserved by ice and the elements.
Archaeologists have since documented 61 line-like tattoos on his body thought to have been created by piercing the skin and applying charcoal dust. Some of them were on areas associated with pain in aging like the knees and ankles, leading archaeologists to theorize that they were created during some kind of pain treatment. But other geometric tattoos on Ötzi’s chest suggest that tattoos had some kind of ritual, ceremonial, or even religious use as far back as the Neolithic age.
The exact meaning may be debated for the next five millennia, though, since researchers concede that without more evidence, there’s no way to know why Ötzi, or other Neolithic people, got inked.
Tattoos in ancient Egypt
The next earliest evidence of tattoos comes from mummies thought to have died between 3351 and 3017 B.C. in ancient Egypt. Discovered in 1900, the bodies were found to sport tattoos in 2018, when researchers re-examined them using infrared imaging and found that what looked like smudging on the skin was actually body art. Their ink is the earliest known evidence of tattoos depicting images—including a wild bull and a sheep on the male’s arm, and symbols resembling the letter “S” and possibly a staff on the female’s arm and shoulder.
The images, which mirror motifs found in other ancient Egyptian art, are the first evidence of tattooing in Africa. Though researchers can only speculate on what the tattoos meant to their bearers, they could have been status symbols or proof of the wearer’s skills such as bravery or knowledge of cult or ritual practices. The differences between the male and female mummies’ tattoos suggest some kind of gender or social system.
Other tattoos dating from later periods suggest that tattoos were eventually used as cultic symbols in ancient Egypt. In one case, archaeologists discovered more than 30 visible and diverse images, from lotus blossoms to the Eye of Horus, on the skin of a female mummy found in the Valley of the Kings. She is thought to have lived in the Ramesside period of 1292 to 1189 B.C., and researchers believe her tattoos show that she was a priestess or magician with a particular connection to the ancient sky goddess Hathor.
Tattoos in the Americas
Tattooing is thought to have been practiced across the Americas, from the Arctic circle to the south. One mummy from the Chinchorro culture in what is now Chile was once thought to sport the oldest known tattoos, a mustache-like set of black dots under his nose. That idea has since been debunked; more recent research revealed that the Chinchorro man died between 2563 and 1972 B.C.—and is therefore not older than Ötzi as previously believed. Either way, the reasons for his tattoo stump researchers since he is the only known mummy from his culture with one.
The “Toltec Mummy,” a woman thought to have lived around A.D. 250 in what is now Mexico, was discovered with complex tattoos on her forearm that reflect undulating geometric motifs common throughout the region. Though researchers can’t pinpoint the exact reason for the tattoos, they speculate they warded off sickness or were part of some kind of initiation rite.
Tattoos in ancient Eastern Europe
Members of the Catacomb culture in Eastern Europe from around 2600 to 2400 B.C. also had tattoos. Their mummified remains, found near the Sea of Azov in what is now Russia, bore plant-dye tattoos representing snakes that researchers believe were part of “sympathetic magic” practices and social roles.
Animal tattoos have also been found on the bodies of members of the Pazyryk culture, which emerged during the Scythians’ domination of what is now Russia between the sixth and second centuries B.C. These Iron-Age nomads lived in the Altai Mountains and depended on horses to live, and even die—they were buried alongside their horses, as in the case of an ice-preserved woman discovered in 1993 alongside six bridled and saddled horses. The high-status woman, along with other buried Pazyryk people, was covered in tattoos of complex horse motifs.
Some researchers believe the tattoos reflected age and social status, meaning that as one gained both they also got more and more ink. Psychology and animal studies specialist Gala Argent posits that the tattoos signified a personal connection to individual horses, and that they provide important evidence about how humans and horses interacted when they were alive.
Tattoos in ancient Asia
Despite modern-day tattoo stigma in China, a variety of ancient cultures across Asia embraced the practice.
In China’s Tarim Basin, for example, the discovery of mummified bodies dating from between 2100 and 800 B.C. shows the prevalence of tattoos across a variety of cultures from the area. Most of those tattoos are located on the mummies’ hands, but tattoo historian Svetlana Pankova notes that a few have face tattoos. She has called for more research on the Tarim tattoos, claiming that with a re-examination of these bodies, “it is likely that many new tattoo discoveries will be made.”
Tattoos in Oceania
Despite the Tahitian origin of the word “tattoo,” archaeologists have found relatively little evidence of tattooing from ancient Polynesia—the tropics’ warm, wet weather doesn’t lend itself well to mummification. In 2019, researchers identified a set of tattoo tools made of human bone thought to date from the dawn of Polynesian culture in what is now Tonga around 2,700 years ago.
But scholars still aren't sure what kinds of motifs were preferred by ancient Polynesians or what the markings meant to Polynesians, speculating that they could have indicated belonging to a particular social group, rites of passage, or a desire to be protected from harm.
As French art historian Luc Renaut explains in an essay in Ancient Ink: The Archaeology of Tattooing, representations of “possibly tattooed” figures in ancient artworks offer a tantalizing view of even earlier tattooing practices. But “few survive close scrutiny,” and ancient artistic styles cannot reliably be interpreted as portraying real-life tattoos.
That, along with a dearth of mummy evidence older than Ötzi, suggests that the true history of tattooing may never be fully uncovered. In the meantime, though, there’s plenty of ink to look for—and more to learn about a truly ancient practice.