What are the world’s oldest tattoos?
If you ask the Internet this question you find a quick and easy answer: The oldest tattoos belong to Ötzi, aka the Iceman, who died and was frozen beneath an Alpine glacier along the Austrian-Italian border between about 3370 and 3100 BC. Thanks to numerous studies, including new findings published earlier this year, we know that Ötzi had a total of 61 tattoos across this body. These were arranged in groups on his left wrist, lower legs, ankles, and lower back, created using ink made from campfire soot, and may have been applied as part of therapeutic treatments for his various injuries and ailments.
While Ötzi has been popularly regarded as having the oldest tattoos, if you posed this same question to the global community of tattoo scholars you were likely to receive a different answer. Until recently many–including myself–would have instead pointed to a tattooed mustache on the mummified body of a man from the Chinchorro culture of South America as being the world’s oldest surviving tattoo.
The Chinchorro culture was a preceramic fishing society that lived in the coastal regions of Southern Peru and Chile between about 7000 and 1100 BC. Some of the earliest Chinchorro burials are naturally mummified as a result of the arid environment of the Atacama Desert, and are among the oldest human mummies identified anywhere in the world. The reported age of the tattooed Chinchorro mummy ranges between about 4000 and 6000 BC, therefore apparently predating Ötzi.
Finding the Chinchorro Mummy
Identifications of the Chinchorro man having the world’s oldest tattoos generally reference a discussion of early mummies from coastal Peru and Chile published in the 1996 volume “Human Mummies: A Global Survey of their Status and the Techniques of Conservation.” That report describes that the oldest tattoo identified in the region is “a thin pencil mustache” on the upper lip of a Chinchorro man dated to about 6000 Before Present (BP). Because of the intricacies of radiocarbon dating–which we’ll get into more below–this date is the equivalent of about 4050 BC thereby making the Chinchorro specimen some 700 years older than Ötzi. However, the 1996 source does not specify where the Chinchorro mummy was discovered or how the date estimate was reached, and does not provide an illustration of the tattooed mustache.
The tattooed mustache on the Chinchorro mummy Mo-1 T28 C22 (after Arriaza, Modelo Bioarqueologico Para la Busqueda y Acercamiento al Individuo Social. Chungara, Revista de Antropología Chilena 21:9–32, 1988.) (Credit: Aaron Deter-Wolf)
A desire to discover the specific identity and age of the tattooed Chinchorro mummy prompted a collaborative research effort between myself, Benoît Robitaille, Lars Krutak (National Museum of Natural History, the Smithsonian Institution), and Sébastien Galliot (Centre de Recherche et de Documentation sur l’Océanie at Aix-Marseille Université). As a result of that work we were able not only to uncover the identity of the Chinchorro specimen, but also to compile a reference list of tattooed mummies from across the globe and thereby demonstrate that Ötzi does indeed sport the oldest tattoos identified to date. Our findings were published online this week in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports.
By working back through the literature we were able to determine that the Chinchorro mummy in question was recovered in 1993 from the site of El Morro in the city of Arica, Chile. The naturally-mummified Chinchorro man known as “Mo-1 T28 C22” was between about 35- and 40-years-old at the time of his death. His tattoos consist of single lines of black dots across his upper lip to either side of the nose, with eight dots to his left and four to his right. Although these dots did not meet our expectations for the “thin pencil mustache” described in 1996, so far as we are able to determine no other Chinchorro mummies have been recorded as having facial tattoos.
Archaeologists will date anything
Without getting too far into the weeds, there are a couple of important points in understanding how archaeologists reference dates. This first is that years “BP” and “BC” or “BCE” are not identical. Before Present, or BP, is typically used to reference radiocarbon dating, which calculates how many years in the past an organism died and therefore stopped taking in the naturally-occurring isotope carbon 14 (14C). Secondly, for the purposes of radiocarbon dating, “Present” is AD 1950. Finally, because it is not possible to measure 100% of the 14C in a sample, there are small errors in the calculation, which are expressed either as a ± value or as a date range. What all this means is that when presented with a radiocarbon date you should read that number as indicating “approximately _____ years before AD 1950.” When, for example, Ötzi’s age is given as 5300 BP or 5300-years old, this means he died approximately 5,300 years before AD 1950, or around 3350 BC.
During the 1980s a radiocarbon date was obtained for a sample of lung tissue from the tattooed Chinchorro mummy. That date was reported as 3830 ± 100 BP, the equivalent of 1880 ± 100 BC. Ötzi on the other hand has been the subject of extensive radiocarbon dating since his discovery in 1991. Different studies have dated samples of his bones and tissue, wood from his bow and axe, pieces of his clothing, and even mosses and animal hair recovered from beneath the glacier in the same gully where he was entombed. These studies show that Ötzi died sometime during the period ca. 3370–3100 BC, and is therefore at least 400 years older than the Chinchorro mummy.
Where things went wrong
As we report in our study, the dates of between 4000 and 6000 BC attributed to the tattooed Chinchorro mummy appear to be the result of a series of errors reading the radiocarbon data. The correct date of 3830 ± 100 BP was initially misread as being 3830 ± 100 BC – the equivalent of about 5,780 BP. As a result, the report in Human Mummies identified the Chinchorro specimen as originating “about 6000 BP.” To compound this initial error, several more recent discussions have further misinterpreted the date. By presenting the already incorrect figure of 6000 BP as instead being 6000 BC (the equivalent about 7950 BP) these works have pushed the reported date for the El Morro mummy back some 4,000 years older than its actual age.
Mummies, mummies, everywhere
Before officially declaring Ötzi to be the oldest tattooed individual, we double checked our data by compiling a list of tattooed human mummies from around the globe. This catalog included at least 49 sites spanning the period between around 3370 BC and AD 1600, and spread throughout the American Arctic, Siberia, Mongolia, western China, Egypt, Sudan, the Philippines, and Greenland in addition to Europe and South America. Some of these finds, such as the Princess of Ukok, the men and women from Burials 2 and 5 at the Pazyryk burial ground, and the woman from Grave 50 at 3-J-23, et-Tereif, Sudan have been well-publicized outside of academia. Others are mentioned simply in passing in early archaeological reports, or appear only in regional and hard-to access journals. A number of sites include multiple tattooed individuals, sometimes numbering in the dozens. In all we were able to identify eleven tattooed mummies greater than 4,000 years old (about 2000 BC). In addition to Ötzi and the Chinchorro man these include seven individuals from Egypt, and two from Russia. To date, Ötzi is the oldest of these finds.
Credit: © South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology/EURAC/Samadelli/Staschitz
New mummified human remains are regularly being discovered throughout the world, particularly in the arid regions of South America’s Pacific coast, along the Nile Valley in Egypt and Sudan, and throughout China’s Traim Basin. New technologies and advanced imaging techniques being used on these new finds and for reexaminations of previously recovered mummies in museum collections will inevitably reveal additional evidence of tattooing in the ancient world. Although Ötzi presently holds the title of “World’s Oldest Tattoos,” future research may well identify preserved ink predating the marks of the Tyrolean Iceman.
Aaron Deter-Wolf is a Prehistoric Archaeologist for the Tennessee Division of Archaeology and an adjunct professor in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Middle Tennessee State University, where he teaches the Anthropology of Tattooing. In 2013 he co-edited the volume Drawing with Great Needles: Ancient Tattoo Traditions of North America You can follow his research here.
Feature Image: Courtesy of © South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology/EURAC/Samadelli/Staschitz