This is what a 5,000-year-old tattoo looks like

Tattoos believed to be the world's oldest figurative body art have been discovered on a pair of well-preserved Egyptian mummies. Talk about ancient hipsters.

Leslie Katz Former Culture Editor
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Leslie Katz
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A linear motif on the female mummy could be a symbol of power and status, or it could represent a throw-stick or baton used in ritual dance. 

British Museum

And you thought your tattoo was starting to look a little faded... 

Tattoos found on two ancient Egyptian mummies show that people have been inking themselves at least a thousand years longer than anyone realized.

The ink, discovered on mummies that live at the British Museum in London, came to light with the aid of infrared imaging done with an upgraded handheld Panasonic Lumix DMC ZS19 camera.

"Incredibly, at over 5,000 years of age, they back the evidence for tattooing in Africa by a millennium," Daniel Antoine, curator of physical anthropology at the British Museum, said in a statement on the find, which is detailed this week in the Journal of Archaeological Science.


Gebelein Man A's tattoo seen under infrared light. 

The British Museum

The mummies, one male and one female, hail from a town once called Gebelein, located along the Nile in an area so hot and dry, the bodies of some ancient inhabitants stayed incredibly intact. While ancient art and tools suggest human tattoos go back as far as the Stone Age, clear-cut proof of the practice depends on well-preserved skin.

A wild bull and a Barbary sheep adorn the upper arm of the male mummy, "Gebelein Man A." While he's been on display at the museum since his discovery almost 100 years ago, it wasn't until recently infrared imaging revealed that two indistinct smudges on his arm were tattoos of horned animals common to Egyptian art from the predynastic period. Such images likely symbolized power and virility.

The tattoos on the red-headed man -- determined by CT scans to be between 18 and 21 when he died from a stab wound -- aren't just superficial. They were applied to the skin's dermis with a carbon-based pigment, possibly one made from soot.  

The tattoos on the female mummy, the oldest known example of female tattooing,  include S-shaped motifs that run over her right shoulder and a linear symbol on her upper arm that may represent a crooked stave, a symbol of power and status, or a throw-stick or baton/clappers used in ritual dance. The same images decorating "Gebelein Woman" can be seen on predynastic pottery.  

The oldest surviving examples of tattoos date back to the late 4th millennium BCE and belong to the mummified body of Ötzi the Iceman, whose skin was preserved by the ice of the Tyrolean Alps. His tattoos, though, are geometric rather then figurative.    

The Gebelein tattoo revelations come as part of an ongoing museum push to research the mummies and the world they inhabited. It's now likely other ancient, naturally preserved Egyptian mummies will get the infrared-imaging treatment that could uncover more early ink. 

"As the oldest known tattooed figural motifs," Antoine said, "they add to our understanding of the range of potential uses of tattoos at the dawn of ancient Egyptian civilization and expand our view of the practice of tattooing in prehistoric times."

But did Gebelein Man A and Gebelein Woman get inked at some swank early-Egyptian tattoo parlor? We may never know. 

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