An archaeologist who followed a hunch has discovered the oldest figural tattoos in the world on the bodies of two 5,000-year-old mummies from Egypt.
Infrared images of the mummies revealed tattoos of a wild bull (Bos primigenius) and a Barbary sheep (Ammotragus lervia) on the upper arm of a mummy nicknamed "Gebelein Man A." The other mummy, a female known as "Gebelein Woman," has linear and S-shaped tattoos on her upper arm and shoulder — markings that are the oldest tattoos ever found on a woman, the archaeologists said.
"Although we tend to think that prehistory (the time before writing) was primitive and rather plain, it is clear this was a sophisticated time and the people must have looked amazing," lead study researcher Renée Friedman, the director of the Hierakonpolis Expedition, led by the University of Oxford's Ashmolean Museum, in the United Kingdom, told Live Science in an email. [25 Grisly Archaeological Discoveries]
Friedman's hunch came about after she and her colleagues discovered a Nubian cemetery at Hierakopolis in Upper Egypt dating to the early Middle Kingdom, or about 2000 B.C. The archaeologists found that three ancient women buried in the cemetery had extensive tattoos, especially on their abdomens. One woman's tattoos were visible to the naked eye, and the tattoos of the other two were revealed with infrared photography.
"This was a revelation because we really couldn't see the tattoos on these other two women without the [infrared] camera," Friedman said. "This gave me the idea that many more tattoos might be undetected and the tradition may go much further back than the Middle Kingdom."
At the time, Friedman was a research curator in the predynastic collection at the British Museum, so she "decided to try [her] camera on the well-preserved Predynastic mummies there" that had good skin preservation and weren't hidden in mummy wrappings, she said. She analyzed seven mummies and found tattoos on two of them — the naturally mummified Gebelein Man A and Gebelein Woman, which date to about 3351 B.C. to 3017 B.C.
"The discovery pushes back tattooing in Africa by over 1,000 years," Friedman said.
Both mummies are from Egypt's predynastic period, before the country was unified under the first pharaoh in about 3100 B.C. Archaeologists unearthed Gebelein Man A about 100 years ago, and he has been on display almost continuously since then, the researchers said. When Gebelein Man A was young, between 18 and 21 years old, he died from a stab wound in his back, according to previous computed tomography (CT) scans, the researchers said.
The new infrared image analysis shows that black smudges on his arms are actually the tattoos of two overlapped horned animals — likely a wild bull with elaborate horns and a long tail, and a Barbary sheep with curving horns and humped shoulders, the researchers said. The tattoos aren't superficial, either — whoever made them applied a carbon-based pigment (likely soot) to the deep, dermis layer of the skin.
It's not clear what these tattoos meant, but perhaps they were symbols of strength or even marks of successful hunts, Friedman said. Or, maybe they were protective images, she said.
In contrast, Gebelein Woman's tattoos didn't show animals, but rather a series of four small S-shapes running over her right shoulder. Below these markings is a linear motif similar to ceremonial objects that are held by figures painted on ceramics from that period, Friedman said. Perhaps this line represents a crooked staff, a symbol of power and status, or a throw-stick or baton used in a ritual dance, the researchers said. [In Photos: Egypt's Oldest Mummy Wrappings]
It would have been easy to see the woman's tattoos when she was still alive, and they might have conveyed her status, bravery or perhaps magical knowledge, the researchers said.
Both mummies are roughly contemporaries of the 5,300-year-old Ötzi, the iceman mummy found in the Italian Alps in 1991. Ötzi has 61 geometric tattoos on his body, Live Science reported in 2015. Some researchers have hypothesized that Ötzi's tattoos had medicinal purposes, as they were placed by known acupuncture points. However, "Unlike Ötzi, there is no indication that [the Egyptian tattoos] had a medical reason," Friedman said.
Researchers have also discovered an ancient tool kit dating to the same period as Gebelein Man A and Gebelein Woman. The kit, discovered in a Predynastic grave, was buried with an older woman between the ages of 40 and 50 years old, Friedman said.
The kit included a bird-shaped palette likely used for grinding cosmetic ores, such as ochre, with rounded pebbles, all of which were found in a basket, Friedman wrote in "Ancient Ink: The Archaeology of Tattooing" (University of Washington Press, 2017). The basket also contained bone awls, which could have been used for tattooing, she said.
"The presence of such awls as part of a kit including pigments, resins, amulets and incense in the grave of an older woman at Hierakonpolis suggests that tattooing was in the hands of specialists and accompanied various rituals and ceremonies," the researchers wrote in the new study.
The findings were published online March 1 in the Journal of Archaeological Science.
Originally published on Live Science.
Live Science newsletter
Stay up to date on the latest science news by signing up for our Essentials newsletter.
Laura is the archaeology and Life's Little Mysteries editor at Live Science. She also reports on general science, including paleontology. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Scholastic, Popular Science and Spectrum, a site on autism research. She has won multiple awards from the Society of Professional Journalists and the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association for her reporting at a weekly newspaper near Seattle. Laura holds a bachelor's degree in English literature and psychology from Washington University in St. Louis and a master's degree in science writing from NYU.