Although we may consider tattoos a modern phenomenon, given their role in popular culture as being associated with distinctly “modern groups” like biker gangs or rock stars, tattoos are an ancient art form. So when was the first tattoo made?
The oldest documented tattoo belonged to Otzi the Iceman. Otzi’s preserved body was found in 1991 in the Alps between Italy and Austria, whereby his tattoos date back between 3400 BCE and 3100 BCE. However, tattoos are believed to be much older, dating back as far back as 10 000 years!
While Otzi may be the oldest recorded tattoo found to date, there is ample evidence to suggest that tattoos are much older. Let’s explore the history of tattoos in greater detail below, to better understand why many anthropologists and archaeologists believe they may be over 10 000 years old:
What Tattoos Did Otzi The Iceman Have?
Before exploring the history of tattooing in greater detail, let us first look at the history of Otzi the Iceman.
Although Otzi, the Iceman’s preserved body, was discovered in 1991, many archaeologists believed that despite the age of his body, he did not have the oldest tattoos in the world. Instead, many archaeologists thought that the Chinchorro mummies found in Northern Chile in 1987 had the oldest tattoos in the world.
The reason is that the Chinchorro mummies are believed to be the oldest mummies in the world, dating back over 7000 years, making them even older than Egyptian mummies! However, the “tattooed Chinchorro man” was a lot younger than initially thought (despite the age of other non-tattooed Chinchorro mummies.)
Initially believed to be over 4000 years old, Chinchorro man’s body was later found mummified between 2563 BCE and 1972 BCE. Therefore, while the series of black dots that adorned his face are signs of ancient tattoos, it cannot be said with certainty that other Chinchorro people would have had similar tattoos (as is evident by the lack of tattooing on older mummies.)
Consequently, archaeologists concluded in 2015 that although Otzi the Iceman was unlikely to be the first recorded instance of tattooing, his body and tattoos are the oldest examples of tattooing on record, dating back between 3400
BCE and 3100 BCE (approximately 1000 years older than Chinchorro man!)
Otzi’s body was adorned with over 61 tattoos, mostly in groups of lines that were believed to have therapeutic and/or medical purposes. The fact that he had these tattoos in distinctive groups suggests that his ancient culture had been practicing tattooing for some time, meaning it is improbable that he was the first tattooed person in history.
When Was Tattooing First Established?
While Otzi the Iceman and other mummies are invaluable archaeological specimens; they exist as examples of ancient tattooing. They are not conclusive proof of the “first tattoos” within their respective cultures.
Instead, archaeologists look to other artifacts to try and determine when tattooing first came into practice. One of the critical factors in determining the traditions of ancient civilizations is to look at records of their tools.
Consequently, archaeologists have found compelling evidence from the European Upper Palaeolithic era, which has uncovered possible tattoo tools dating back 10 000 and 40 000 years ago!
However, some evolutionary scientists believe that the answer to determining the age of tattooing is biological and not merely archaeological. Therefore, some scientists believe tattooing came about upon the creation of culture, which in turn is linked to the increased brain size of homo sapiens.
In conclusion, evolutionary biology suggests that tattooing may be as old as 75 000 years ago! Whether further archaeological evidence will be uncovered to support these claims is yet to be seen.
What Is The History Of Tattoos In Different Regions?
Although the debate around the world’s oldest tattoo samples centered on Otzi from the Alps and Chinchorro man from Northern Chile, the history of tattooing in different regions raises questions regarding where tattooing as an art form began.
Tattooing In Asia
Although tattooing is frowned upon in many Asian countries in the modern-day, tattooing in Asia is an ancient tradition. Notable examples include mummies in the Chinese province of Xinjiang dating back between 2100 BCE and 500 BCE.
However, some evidence is that these ancient tattoos were associated with undesirable members of society like bandits and/or convicted criminals.
Tattooing In Egypt
Mummies dating back to 2000 BCE from Egypt show examples of tattooing, whereby many archaeologists believe these tattoos were done for therapeutic/medical reasons.
Interestingly, it would seem that only female members of ancient Egyptian society received tattoos, as supported by the archaeological evidence of solely female mummies.
Tattooing In Samoa
Given the province of tattoos in Pacific Islander culture, it is no surprise to find out that Samoa has an ancient history of tattooing. It is believed that the term “tattoo” is derived from the Samoan word for a tattoo, that being “tatau.”
While there are fewer archeological records of tattooing from Samoa in the form of mummies, oral tradition, present Samoan culture, and evidence of tattooing tools suggest that Samoa has been practicing the art of tattooing for over 2000 years!
In fact, ancient tattooing techniques persist in favor of modern techniques, whereby the art of tattooing is passed down from father to son. These tattoos are renowned for being beautiful and intricate while also being extremely painful and taking weeks to complete.
Tattooing In Ancient Greece And Rome
While ancient and modern Polynesian cultures used tattoos as a mark/sign of respect and leadership, ancient Greece and Rome mainly used them as a method of branding outcasts in society.
Starting in ancient Greece from the 5th century BCE until the 9th century in Rome, tattooing was often used as a method of branding defeated enemies, convicts, and/or slaves.
In conclusion, although tattoos have captured the public conciseness of the modern world, tattooing is believed to be an ancient art form dating back to the formation of ancient cultures and civilizations.
Some of my favorite designs, tattoo books, and aftercare products, selected for you
Thank you for reading my article, I hope that you have found it helpful. If you would have trouble finding ideas for your tattoo, wonder what is meaning of design that you have found or what to buy for aftercare, to make sure that your tattoo will be healing quickly and easily, here are some of my favorite products in one place, hope that this will also help.
Design and tattoo ideas
For some ideas you can have a look at those 3 books with hundreds of designs that I use with my clients, they are available on Amazon for Kindle or in classic, paper version (links below):
- Great Book of Tattoo Designs, Revised Edition: More than 500 Body Art Designs (Fox Chapel Publishing) Fantasy, Celtic, Floral, Wildlife, and Symbol Designs for the Skin by Lora Irish
- The Big Book of Small Tattoos – Vol.1: 400 small original tattoos for women and men by Roberto Gemori
- Tiny Tattoos: Over 1,000 Small Inspirational Artworks by Rebecca Vincent.
If you would like to read more about the meaning of different tattoo styles and designs before you will decide what you would like to have, I can recommend a book that was really useful for me when I was starting my tattoo adventure – it’s “Conscious Ink: The Hidden Meaning of Tattoos” by Lisa Barretta (through the link you can find it on Amazon for around $10).
The skin at the tattoo site often dries out. To prevent it and speed up healing for my clients, I usually recommend one of those tattoo aftercare balms (you can find them on Amazon):