(AKA, 5,300 years ago)
In 1991, after one of the warmest summers in recent history, in the Alps between Austria and Italy (in the Otzal region), two hikers came across a body that was beginning to emerge from the melting glacial ice. But this was no ordinary victim of a hiking accident. Instead, the 35 year old man that had emerged would turn out to be the oldest mummy ever recovered.
While the light that he sheds on the Copper Age of Europe can (and does) fill a book, what’s important for this web site is that he is tattooed. The oldest mummy ever recovered is also the earliest known tattooed human being. That fact is, I think, no coincidence and it speaks to the great antiquity of tattooing.Researchers who examined the finds were surprised not only at the remarkable preservation of his body and the artifacts associated with him, but also the presence of 59 separate tattoos. “The following details have been observed so far: two parallel stripes around the left wrist; four groups of lines to the left of the lumbar spine; one group of lines to the right of the lumbar spine; a cruciform mark on the inside of the right knee; three groups of lines on the left calf; a small cruciform mark to the left of the Achilles tendon; a group of lines on the back of the right foot; a group of lines next to the right outer ankle; a group of lines above the right inner ankle” (Konrad Spindler in The Man in the Ice, 1994). His tattoos mostly amount to groups of short parallel lines and their purpose may be related to their locations.
The back and leg tattoos coincide with typical acupuncture points for treating back and leg pain. Interestingly, they also coincide with areas where Otzi (as he was nicknamed) showed evidence of osteoarthritis.
But the prevailing theory about acupuncture says that it originated in China, only about 2,000 to 3,000 years ago. So either acupuncture is much more ancient than previously thought (which seems likely) or his tattoos were not therapeutic at all but perhaps used as an ethnic identifier, a good luck charm, or were simply body art.
My own opinion, as average and conservative as can be, is that Otzi’s tattoos probably resulted from some combination of these and perhaps other motivations at which we can only guess. There’s no reason to believe that all of his tattoos were for the same purpose.Playing devil’s advocate, acupuncture seems likely but using ink is not a necessary part of the process. While displaying his ethnic or tribal affiliation may have been done using his tattoos, many of them are not easily visibile given his clothing. From what we know of the artistic expression of early peoples, art is almost never art for art’s sake, such that tattoos being done purely as body art seems unlikely. Many groups of people across the globe and through time have used tattooing in rites of passage from adolescence into adulthood. In that Otzi was an adult, it’s even possible that his tattoos represent such a ritual. Frankly, the speculation can go back and forth without end. The only real facts with which we are left are that Otzi is tattooed and that we’ll probably never know exactly why. Even so, the fact remains that the most ancient human skin ever discovered is tattooed.