It Looks Like a Smudge. But Its Significance Is Huge

Mummy tattoos among the oldest ever found, say scientists
By Arden Dier,  Newser Staff
Posted Mar 1, 2018 11:25 AM CST
This Might Be the Oldest Tattoo Ever Discovered
Infrared image of the male mummy known as Gebelein Man.   (Trustees of the British Museum)

The ancient Egyptian mummy has been a favorite attraction at the British Museum since it was discovered a century ago in Gebelein, but only keen-eyed passers-by would've wondered at the dark smudges on the male's upper arm. Turns out, they were worth noticing. Infrared scans have revealed them to be the oldest figurative tattoos in the world, reports the Guardian. The two slightly overlapping tattoos showing a wild bull and a horned sheep—together with four S-shaped marks found on the shoulder of a female mummy also kept in the museum—are thought to be at least 5,000 years old, a millennium older than other tattooing evidence found in Africa, according to a study in the Journal of Archaeological Science.

With Gebelein Man and Gebelein Woman dating from 3351BC to 3017BC, their tattoos could technically be the oldest in the world. But there's competition from the simple lines tattooed on Otzi the Iceman, who lived in Europe between 3370BC and 3100BC, reports the BBC. The more elaborate tattoos on the ancient Egyptians are believed to have been created using soot and "some type of needle made from bone or copper," British Museum curator Daniel Antoine says, per the Sydney Morning Herald. The BBC reports the tats likely "denoted status, bravery, and magical knowledge." But though Antoine says Gebelein Woman "may have been a person of importance," Gebelein Man's tattoos are particularly important as they represent the first evidence that males in the region were tattooed in addition to women. (Ancient Egypt also yielded one of the oldest known prosthetics.)

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