Gebelein Man: World's Earliest Figural Tattoos Found on 5,000-Year-Old Egyptian Mummies

The world’s oldest tattoos showing figures have been discovered on the arms of two 5,000-year-old Egyptian mummies. Hiding in plain sight, the naturally preserved remains of a man and a woman decorated with animals and symbols were acquired by London's British Museum back in 1900. Their tattoos were finally uncovered with infrared imaging.

The woman’s tattoos are the oldest ever discovered on a female human body. S-shaped and linear markings adorn her upper arm and shoulder. Two horned creatures—thought to be a wild bull and a Barbary sheep—decorate the man’s upper arm.

“Incredibly, at over five thousand years of age, they push back the evidence for tattooing in Africa by a millennium,” said Daniel Antoine, curator of physical anthropology at the British Museum, in a press statement. Antoine is one of the lead authors of a research paper on the discovery published online Thursday in the Journal of Archaeological Science.

3_1_Gebelein Man_01 Gebelein man A, previously known by the nickname "Ginger" because of his surviving red hair, is pictured here. Trustees of the British Museum

The mummies were unearthed in the Egyptian desert near Gebelein, around 25 miles south of the city of Luxor. The new investigation was part of a wider research and conservation project.

Because they found tattoos on other remains, Antoine and co-lead study author Renée Friedman, researcher with the Faculty of Oriental Studies at the University of Oxford, decided to image the early mummies with infrared technology. That examination revealed that what had appeared to be smudges on the skin of two of the seven Gebelein mummies examined were actually figural tattoos.

3_1_Gebelein Woman tattoo S-shaped tattoos revealed on the Gebelein woman. Trustees of the British Museum

“We were really, really surprised to find tattoos, actually. Pleasantly surprised,” Antoine told Newsweek.

Radiocarbon dating of the mummies’ hair confirmed these two sets of remains likely date back to 3351-3017 BCE. The male tattooed mummy—previously nicknamed “Ginger”—is famed for his surviving red hair. He is now known as “Gebelein man A.”

Natural mummification

Ancient tattoos have been found on Egyptian mummies from about 2000 BCE, during the Middle Kingdom of Egypt. Women’s tattooed bodies were previously discovered at the temple complex of Deir el-Bahari across the Nile from Luxor city. This millennium-long gap in known tattoos, Antoine said, could be due to changing burial practices.

3_1_Gebelein Man tattoo The Gebelien man's animal tattoos were revealed using infrared imaging. Trustees of the British Museum

In the Old Kingdom, a period of about 500 years before the Middle Kingdom but after the Gebelein mummies died, Egyptians famously practiced artificial mummification. These techniques often preserved human remains poorly, leaving just bones and bandages today.

Read more: Ancient Egypt: Newly Discovered 2,000-year-old Tomb Contains Mummy of High Priest and 40 Sarcophagi

The Gebelein mummies, however, dried out naturally in their graves. Incredibly rare specimens, this natural mummification left their skin relatively intact.

A widespread practice?

Ancient humans outside of Egypt were also fond of tattoos. Another tattoo-bearing  mummy, Ötzi the Iceman, was discovered in 1991 in the Ötztal Alps, which straddle the boundary of modern-day Austria and Italy. He is likely a rough contemporary of the Gebelein mummies.

Ötzi had very geometric tattoos. The Gebelein mummies, on the other hand, replicate decorative motifs from other art forms.

“What we here have for the first time,” Antoine said, “is people putting figures which are also used in other mediums—pottery, rock art, engravings—on their bodies.”

3_1_Artistic S motif A ritual scene painted on a Predynastic pottery jar depicts multiple S-motifs and a man holding a curved implement. Trustees of the British Museum

Ancient Egyptian female figurines with tattoo-like markings had led archaeologists to believe that real-life women from the period might also have skin art. The tattoos found on both a man and woman confirm that both sexes engaged in the practice.

3_1_Sheep Palette The Barbary sheep carved on a ceremonial palette of the terminal Predynastic period. Its characteristic out-turned horns and hump at the shoulder can be seen in the Gebelien man's tattoo. Ashmolean Museum/University of Oxford

It may be the case, Antoine said, that tattooing practices were even more widespread than the study’s imaging methods can reveal. Archaeologists are limited by burial techniques like wrapping. CT scans, for example, can produce cross-sectional images of mummies, but they do not yet allow for the detection of tattoos. 

“We can only really look for evidence of tattooing if the mummy is unwrapped in some form,” Antoine explained. “There are lots of South American mummies that are still covered in their textiles, for example."

“I’m sure that there is more to be discovered,” he said.

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