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Gebelein Man
Gebelein Man, with the newly discovered tattoos on his upper armThe British Museum

The world’s oldest tattoos have been discovered on two Egyptian mummies

Very cool

Everyone and their nan has a tattoo these days, where it’s a spiritual, meaningful mark or a somewhat-regrettable infinity sign. We’ve seen engineers make living tattoos, and witches document magical, primeval skin artworks. Now, experts have discovered some of the earliest examples of figural tattoos ever on some Egyptian mummies, adorned with what looks like a bull, a Barbary sheep, and S-shaped notes.

Researchers at the British Museum have found the world’s oldest figurative tattoos on naturally preserved mummies that are over 5,000 years old. These are the oldest examples of tattoos that resemble figures, rather than abstract lines and patterns. The markings were found after what academics believed were smudges on the two mummies were scanned using infrared machines.

This discovery has pushed back evidence for tattooing in Africa by over 1,000 years. It also shows that body modification was not exclusive to women in ancient Egypt, as archaeologists had believed.

Illustrations of a wild bull and a North African Baraby sheep were found on the upper arm of the male mummy, also known as Gebelein Man A. They are thought to have been a show of macho and virility – the animals are commonly associated with representations of male fertility and strength.

Scans of Gebelein Woman, the female mummy, showed she has four, fairly small, S-shaped designs on her right shoulder and another symbol on her arm that is thought to be either a baton used in ritual dance or a staff of office. Her more minimal tattoos are thought to have represented her status, or a mystical knowledge and power.

While today we have automated tattoo guns and even living tattoos, these designs were completed with a needle made of either copper or bone, using soot as a pigment.

More information on these ancient tattoos has been published in the Journal of Archaeological Science.