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The world’s oldest tattoos have been discovered on 5,000-year-old mummies

The mummies have been displayed at the British Museum for nearly a hundred years, but this startling discovery was only made last week.

A recent infrared examination of two ancient Egyptian mummies, currently displayed in the British Museum, has revealed tattoos dating back to anywhere between 3351 B.C. and 3017 B.C., making them the oldest of their kind.

Despite being on display for at the British Museum for so long, it wasn’t until now that scientists have had the ability to use infrared technology to examine the markings more closely.

Scientists say the symbols on the mummified male body depict a giant bull and a North-African goat, which are figures believed to have been associated with male virility.

Tattoos on the Predynastic male mummy from Gebelein.. © the Trustees of the British Museum.

Tattoos on the Predynastic male mummy from Gebelein. © the Trustees of the British Museum.

Tattoos on the Predynastic male mummy from Gebelein.. © the Trustees of the British Museum.

Tattoos on the Predynastic male mummy from Gebelein. (Photo: British Museum)

The mummified female body contains four symbols shaped like an ‘S’ and one ‘L’shape which examiners believe might be a wooden staff.

Tattoos on the Predynastic female mummy from Gebelein. © the Trustees of the British Museum.

Tattoos on the Predynastic female mummy from Gebelein. (Photo: British Museum)

Tattoos on the Predynastic female mummy from Gebelein. © the Trustees of the British Museum.

Tattoos on the Predynastic female mummy from Gebelein. (Photo: British Museum)

The findings were published on Thursday in the Journal of Archaeological Sciences, prompting a discussion on the custom of humans decorating their bodies.

Not only does the discovery push back the dates originally associated with tattoo culture in ancient Egypt, but it also contradicts the theory that only women had tattoos, which are believed to be associated with fertility.

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The symbolism of the tattoos is groundbreaking for anthropologists and historians, being the oldest discovery of symbolic artwork rather than lines and dots, which were thought to be the custom in the ancient world.

Daniel Antoine, curator of physical anthropology at the British Museum, told CNN: “The symbols being tattooed are quite extraordinary.”

“They were very sophisticated people 5000 years ago…there’s no reason why their reasoning for having a tattoo on their body wouldn’t be as multifaceted as it is today.”

About the author

Alice is a Londoner who quit her 9 – 5 job and bought a one way ticket to Sydney. Usually found pining after Leonardo DiCaprio, drinking red wine and keeping her Instagram “on point” via @alicesantics .

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