We tend to think of tattooing as a relatively new phenomenon that is a fast growing part of modern culture, but evidence of tattooing on human skin dates back for thousands of years. Now a new discovery on a 5,000-year-old mummy shows that tattooing has been around even longer than we thought. This new discovery, as reported in The Journal of Archaeological Science, changes the history of tattooing in a big way.
Why is this discovery so significant? For starters, it changes what we know about gender customs and norms. This is the first evidence of tattooing on a male from that time period. Historians have long speculated that the purpose for tattooing Egyptian women in that time period was to mark them as prostitutes. Other historians have disagreed with that theory, instead believing that females were tattooed for protection during the process of pregnancy and childbirth. Whatever the reason, tattoos have only been found on females until recently.
The tattoos that were discovered, which depict figural animals, including a bull and a sheep, are now the oldest known figural tattoos. It is thought that these animal figures were either tattooed to show status or were something they wanted to be associated with for whatever reason. This is much of the same reasoning people use for getting tattooed today.
How were the tattoos made? They were placed in the skin much like tattoos today are. It is thought that Egyptians used a needle-like instrument to place material, usually soot, under the skin. Evidence of flat needle-like instruments, tied together to make uniform dots has been discovered at historic sites by archaeologists.
It is interesting to study tattooing practices and designs because it tells a lot about the culture of a certain time period. Humans have been marking their bodies for thousands of years. Tattoos have long been symbols of status, statements of love, signs of religious beliefs or decorations.
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