The male egyptian mummy known as Gebelein Man, was found Northern Egypt near the modern city of Luxor. He is estimated to have lived anywhere from 3351 B.C. to 3017 B.C., making him one of the earliest known bearers of a tattoo.
Details of the tattoos have been published in the Journal of Archaeological Science
What initially looked like a smudge was re-examined with infrared imaging, which allows scientists to see the markings on the mummified skin with more clarity. Scientists spotted the images of a wild bull and what appears to be a Barbary sheep.
Together with the female egyptian mummy, both bodies contained tattoos that were inked into the dermis, the thicker part of their skin, with an ink made of some sort of soot. Copper instruments found in nearby regions have been previously suggested as tattooing tools.
The inkings pre-date previous evidence for tattooing in Africa by 1,000 years.
Images of a wild bull, a Barbary sheep (a wild African species of sheep that looks a lot like a goat) were found on the upper arm of “Gebelein Man”.
The female mummy has four small S-shaped motifs running down her right shoulder.
She also has a motif that is thought to represent batons used in ritual dance.
The find suggests, for the first time, that both men and women in ancient Egyptian societies had tattoos.
The bull portrayed in the larger of the man’s two tattoos represented a now-extinct species of giant wild bull, known as the aurochs. They were feared, admired and often worshipped throughout parts of the ancient world.
CT scans on the man showed he was in his early 20s when he died. A cut in his shoulder and damage to one of his ribs suggests he died from a stab wound to the back.
Doctor Daniel Antoine, curator of physical anthropology at the British Museum said:
“She has a crooked stave on the upper part of her arm and on her shoulders she has a series of ‘S’ (marks) and we have parallels for those in the iconography of predynastic art (before about 3,000 BC).
“We think the curved line represents a stave – a crooked stave that’s often depicted in ceremonial scenes and it maybe represents a special status but also they’re often depicting ritual scenes.”
The individuals were buried in shallow graves without any special preparation, but their bodies were naturally preserved by the heat, salinity and aridity of the desert.
Previously, archaeologists had thought only women wore tattoos in the ancient past, but the discovery of tattoos on the male mummy now shows body modification concerned both sexes.
The oldest example of tattooing is found on the Alpine mummy known as Ötzi who is thought to have lived between 3370 and 3100 BC. But his tattoos are vertical or horizontal lines, rather than figurative.