Tattooing - Earliest examples

Tattooed markings on skin and incised markings in clay provide some of the earliest evidence that humans have long practised a wide range of body art. The written accounts of early European explorers also attest to the elaborate and widespread nature of tattooing in various parts of the world, providing an insight into traditions that had their origins deep in the past.

Ötzi the Ice man

This frozen human was found in the Austrian Alps and dates to 5,300 years ago. His is the oldest tattooed body known. He has 57 tattoos, some of which appear to be for the treatment of arthritis in joints such as the ankles, knees and lower back.

Pazyryk Mummies (pazyryk culture)

These mummies were found in the High Altai Mountains of western and southern Siberia and date from around 2400 years ago. The tattoos on their bodies represent a variety of animals. The griffins and monsters are thought to have a magical significance but some elements are believed to be purely decorative. Altogether the tattoos are believed to reflect the status of the individual.

Mummy of Amunet (dynasty XI, Egypt, c. 4040 - 3994 years ago)

This mummy was found at Thebes. Amunet was a priestess of Hathor (the Egyptian goddess of love). All tattooed Egyptian mummies found to date are female. The location of the tattoos on the lower abdomen are thought to be linked to fertility.

Tattooing in the Pacific (Lapita culture)

The earliest evidence of tattooing in the Pacific is in the form of this pottery sherd which is approximately 3000 years old. The Lapita face shows dentate (pricked) markings on the nose, cheeks and forehead, suggestive of the technique of tattoo application.

Tattooing in Japan (Jômon period)

The earliest evidence of tattooing in Japan comes from figurines called dogu. Most of these date to 3000 years ago and display similar markings to the tattooed mouths found among the women of the Ainu (the Indigenous people of Japan).

Tattooing in Ancient Greece and Rome

The Greeks learned tattooing from the Persians. Tattooing is mentioned in accounts by Plato, Aristophanes, Julius Caesar and Herodotus. Tattoos were generally used to mark slaves and punish criminals.

The Romans adopted tattooing from the Greeks. In the 4th century, the first Christian emperor of Rome banned the facial tattooing of slaves and prisoners. In 787, Pope Hadrian prohibited all forms of tattooing.

Tattooing in Central and South America

In Peru, tattooed Inca mummies dating to the 11th century have been found. In Mexico and Central America, 16th century Spanish accounts of Mayan tattooing reveal tattoos to be a sign of courage.

Tattooing in North America

In North America, early Jesuit accounts testify to the widespread practice of tattooing among Native Americans. Among the Chickasaw, outstanding warriors were recognised by their tattoos. Among the Ontario Iroquoians, elaborate tattoos reflected high status. In north-west America, Inuit women's chins were tattooed to indicate marital status and group identity.

Tattooing in France

In the 18th century, many French sailors returning from voyages in the South Pacific had been elaborately tattooed. In 1861, French naval surgeon, Maurice Berchon, published a study on the medical complications of tattooing. After this, the Navy and Army banned tattooing within their ranks.

Tattooing in England

In England, tattooing flourished in the 19th century and became something of a tradition in the British Navy. In 1862, the Prince of Wales received his first tattoo - a Jerusalem cross - after visiting the Holy Land. In 1882, his sons, the Duke of Clarence and the Duke of York (later King George V) were tattooed by the Japanese master tattooist, Hori Chiyo.


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