Friday Five… Reasons Why Our Ancestors Got Tattoos

Siberian Princess Tattoo

Earlier this week, the striking tattoos of an ancient Siberian princess hit the headlines. Now, you may think of tattoos as something to cover up when grandma comes to visit to avoid unnecessary tutting and exclamations of “in my day people used to respect their bodies instead of writing all over them”.

Well, you can tell grandma that she doesn’t have a leg to stand on. The origins of tattoos are even more ancient than she is…

1. Tattoos for therapy for 5,000 year old Ötzi the Iceman

Otzi Tattoos

Buried in snow and ice for over 5,000 years, the amazingly well-preserved skin of everyone’s favourite iceman Otzi is the oldest example we have of tattoos… and he had over 50 of them! All of Otzi’s tattoos are simple lines and crosses, but archaeologists think they probably had a therapeutic purpose. New studies of his bones indicate that Otzi had arthritis and his tattoos are all on the same pressure points targeted by acupuncturists today, places subject to stress like the ankles, wrists, knees, Achilles tendon, and lower back… Not sure granny will want to hear about this one next time her arthritis flares up!

2. Maori tattoos were copied onto legal treaties

Maori Tattoo

The art of Polynesian tattoos goes back over 2,000 years and the word ‘tattoo’ (adapted from the Tahitian ‘tatau’) entered the English language in 1769 when navigator Captain James Cook journeyed to Polynesia. In Tahiti, a girl’s buttocks were tattooed black when she reached maturity. In Hawaii, mourners often had three black dots tattooed on their tongue, while in Borneo, an eye tattooed onto the palm of the hand was believed to act as a spiritual guide to lead them to the next life. In New Zealand, tattoos were such an important part of identity that Maori leaders signed treaties by drawing replicas of their facial tattoo.

3. Matrilineal kinship passed down through Ainu tattoos

Ainu Tattoo

According Ainu mythology, tattoos were brought to earth by the “ancestral mother”, the younger sister of the creator god Okikurumi. For the Ainu, tattooing was exclusively the preserve of women, performed by grandmothers or maternal aunts when a girl came of age. But these tattoos can also be traced back thousands of years to the Ainu’s ancestors – the Jōmon people, a culture which existed from 12,000 to 300 BC. Earthenware figures called ‘Dagu’ are often excavated from Jōmon houses. Their faces are engraved with lines and patterns believed to represent tattoos. At various times, Japanese authorities banned tattooing among its indigenous populations, but despite laws against them, Ainu tattooing practices continued until very recently and the last traditionally tattooed Ainu woman died only in 1998.

4. Tattoos for the gods in Ancient Egypt

Egypt Tattoo


Many blue faience figurines from the Middle Kingdom display dotted geometric patterns across their stomachs and thighs, suggesting that the Ancient Egyptians also took up tattooing. Now, studies of Egyptian mummies found they also had similar tattoos. The most famous is that of Amunet, priestess of the goddess Hathor at Thebes, who was discovered at Deir el-Bahari in 1891. She has diamond shapes composed of dots tattooed on her right thigh, as well as tattoos on her arms and all over her stomach which, Egyptologists suggest, relate to fertility and honour of the goddess Hathor.

5. Tit for tat – tattooing the enemy in Ancient Greece

Greek Tattoo

Not all tattoos are celebratory marks of identity and culture – tattooing in Ancient Greece was quite the opposite. Criminals, defeated enemies and slaves were often marked out – literally. The Athenians, for example, would tattoo an owl – the emblem of Athens – onto Samian captives after their triumph. This became a game of tit for tat and was reciprocated by  the Samians, who in turn tattooed captured Athenian prisoners with an image of their own warship.

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Written by Aisling Serrant

An all round museum educator and enthusiast, Aisling's the Family Festival Coordinator at the Museum of London Docklands.

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