Tattooing 5,300 Years Ago

3,300 BCE
(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.

The Ice Man of the Alps

The Ice Man of the Alps

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.

Diagram of Tattoos

Diagram of 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).

Back Tattoo

Back Tattoo

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.

Knee Tattoo

Knee Tattoo

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.

Oetzi Reconstruction

Oetzi Reconstruction

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.

Tattooing 4,000 Years Ago


Tattooing 5,300 Years Ago — 3 Comments

  1. I agree that we can not be absolutely sure about any of this, and it is presumptuous to project our own conclusions onto such ancient evidence, but I would like to submit for consideration an idea that occurred to me when I first learned of these tattoos.

    One of the team of investigators studying the body had extensive experience in acupuncture, and recognized that the marks close to the spine correspond with “primary” points of treatment for conditions that are evident in other tests performed on the mummy. The marks at the ankles and knees also correspond to “remote” points of treatment for the same conditions as the “primary” points. To me, this correlation strongly suggests that what we have could , in fact, represent a practice of acupuncture healing; not only 2000 years earlier, but also far removed in geography and culture from the earliest practice of this method we previously knew of in China, around 1000 B.C.E.

    The use of the charcoal dust, to permanently mark the places where this treatment was applied, suggest to me that The Shaman performing these treatments may have applied them over several visits, as relief gave way to recurring pain. If this is possible, then we may need to consider the possibility that the oldest tattoos on record may not be for symbolic or decorative purposes at all, but that they represent a set of medical records, deposited on the skin of the patient, so that as he returned to his Shaman for subsequent treatments, the healer could simply look at the skin, and immediately recognize where treatment had been previously applied, and determine how to continue treatment. The series of parallel lines along the spinal column, especially, seem to suggest this to me.

    I’m not an expert in tattooing, or in archaeology, but I have looked into a variety of ancient mystical and healing practices, and it seems to me quite likely that these pieces of evidence may add up to the logical conclusion I’m suggesting.

    5,300 years ago, our material culture was quite primitive, compared to everything we’re surrounded with today, but it’s worth remembering that the development of the brain was virtually identical to what we currently posses; which is to say they were just as smart, and just as practical as we are today. From a practical standpoint, I think it’s well worth considering this possibility.

    • Scott, I’m an acupuncturist! I believe you are correct. To add…the symbols are yin and yang lines from the i ching I believe. They appear to be either directly related or at least along the line of influence that ultimately developed into the i ching. He clearly has the trigram known as earth on his kidney shu on the lower back, which is used for chronic back pain. The set above has 4 lines, which is an uncommon although not unheard of use of the lines as they tend to focus on 1, 2, 3, or 6 line sets. He appears to have a set of 7 or more on his calf from the single angle shot I have found. The two dots on the back of the hand, which are quite hard to see, are in the classical location of yao tong xue and are also used for lower back pain. The location of the earth trigram is the kidney shu point…a classic for chronic back pain. The cross is located at his Bladder 40, a classic for back pain. It’s quite apparent that this man had a sore back!

  2. Well, Scott, it just so happens I’m partial to theories about shaman activity and I appreciate your comment. What you propose makes as much sense as a direct treatment for arthritis or the use of symbols (be they only pluses or parallel lines) for curative, group identification, or even afterlife purposes. I particularly like your suggestion that the parallel lines might represent repeat treatments because, from an archaeological point of view, that’s potentially testable. Because tattoos age, it might be possible to determine whether those lines were done simultaneously or were perhaps separated by long gaps in time. It might even be possible to determine if the pigment is the same. Though I doubt it’s high on the list of investigations, it’s something to consider.

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