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Otzi Confirms: Tattoos Have Always Been Cool

Monday, November 25, 2013 - 05:10 PM

(WARNING: the following contains an unapologetic pro-tattoo bias. If this upsets you, please complain loudly to Soren Wheeler at

To the joy of tattoo-adorned folks like myself, it has been officially confirmed by the smartest of smart-folks on our planet: tattoos are more than just a passing trend. The Romans had ‘em. The Greeks had ‘em. The Egyptians had ‘em. And now thanks to Ötzi, the ancient star of our short An Ice-Cold Case (and a man who has captured hearts the world over), we know that some of the first humans to ever make the move from hunters & gatherers to farmers & miners had tattoos too.

Ötzi's body is littered with over 50 tattoos. And since his is the oldest dead body ever found, his ink is the oldest form of tattooing we’ve ever been able to actually see on human skin!

South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology

Fun things to know about these tattoos

It’s likely Ötzi’s tattoos would have served a therapeutic purpose -- on top of whatever symbolism or ritualistic place they had in his life. The markings are located around areas on Ötzi’s body that would have experienced aches-n-pains as he hiked around the icy mountains, and the tattooing may have relieved joint pain, which would be especially great if Dr. Andy Coghland is right, and Ötzi was battling arthritis.

South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology

Almost all of these tattoos are located on the same pressure-points on Otzi that are targeted by practitioners of acupuncture. After finding Ötzi, historians realized that acupuncture-like treatments of pain were thousands of years older, and far wider-spread, than previously predicted.

South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology

All of Ötzi’s tattoos are simple lines, dots or equal-armed crosses.

South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology

Unlike the tattoos that I wear, Ötzi’s were not made with needles and ink. Nope, researchers believe that these tats were drawn with sharp blades (likely stone) and colored by rubbing burnt charcoal into the wounds. (A similar form of tattooing is still done in different forms by certain tribes in East Africa, like the Dinka of Southern Sudan who I used to live with.)

Aren’t they beautiful?!

On top of having tattoos, Ötzi also wore a big beard and loved hand-made, artisanal design. Who knew that he would have so much in common with twenty-something Brooklyn dudes like me?! In fact, fellow Brooklynite and Ötzi-enthusiast Jonathan Marshall heard our podcast and wrote in to tell us that his love of Ötzi inspired him to create this sculpture in which he gives Ötzi modern, American-style tattoos:

I love Ötzi. I love tattoos. And, in light of all of this, I've decided to get a few of Ötzi's tattoos on my body! If you've got some Ötzi ink that you want to share, send your pictures to us at 

You can find more from Jonathan Marshall here.

If you’re hungry for more Otzi images, get your fill with these amazing zoom-able photos.

For more on ancient tattoos, check out this great article in ARCHAEOLOGY.


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Comments [9]

Donalee from USA

I am offended by your use of Otzi in this way. This man was obviously very accomplished in his day in order to have vastly exceeded the life expectation of that time. Even so, why do you feel it is appropriate to use any man's remains for your amusement? You shouldn't have access to such relics.

Sep. 26 2015 01:43 PM
Mark Devon from San Jose ca

Program on ötzi on zdf.neo. In German
Also, you need a VPN connection to appear in Deutschland .

Apr. 01 2014 10:41 PM
Brian from Brooklyn, NY

Andy - Thank you very much for a "pro-bias" account on pre-historic tattooing (I just recently plugged this entry and the accompanying audio short at needlesandsins - a tattooing website that I run with my girlfriend who has published numerous books on sub-dermal art). While the podcast itself was a little light on the tattoo angle, Otzi is an incredibly important discovery and one that's worth talking about, both in terms of forensics and in terms of mankind's desire to adorn the body.

(Side note: my hippy mother who hates tattoos - and my Japanese "bodysuit" - loves Otzi for his implied homeopathic tendencies)

I'm unsure if you're familiar with the movement in the tattoo community to keep traditional/indigenous practices alive, but you should look into the "Mark of the Four Waves" out of the Phillipines (primarily my friend Elle Festin) and my other pal Colin Dale out of Denmark who's practicing Inuit "skin-stitching." Also, there are plenty of Maori who are still wearing a Moko, and the Horis of Japanese training are still applying their craft. While tattooing is never going to fade (though the tattoos might...), the urge to keep the ancient techniques and patterns alive is still present and worthy of celebration.

I'd love to talk with you more at length about these issues, but I simply want to thank you for a "pro-adornment" article that also involves a scientific angle. High-Fives to you, Jad, Robert and everyone else involved.

Dec. 03 2013 09:32 PM
Sjoerd from Amsterdam

Dear Andy,

Thank you for the nice article on Otzi's tattoos. I have felt strongly connected to the mummy since used to call myself "Oetsie" when I was young and unable to pronounce my own name. I want to honor this connection by placing his medicinal tattoos on my body. I have found it very difficult though to find some real information on the exact location and purpose of the tattoos. There must be some detailed archeological drawings of his tattoos? Next to this there is also confusion about which markings are actual tattoos, for instance the first picture you show of the wrist is supposedly a hemorrhage caused by a rope around his hand.

I'm curious if you have been able to find more detailed information?

Thank you from a very dedicated radiolab listener!

Nov. 27 2013 03:34 AM

Enjoyed this piece - particularly the pro-tattoo bias - but one quick correction: Otzi is not the oldest example of mummified human remains. He also doesn't have the oldest preserved tattoos. That honor goes to a man from the Chinchorro culture of South America, whose mummy has a tattooed "mustache" on the upper lip & dates to nearly 8,000 years ago. There's a citation for the Chinchorro find in this paper, hosted on

Nov. 27 2013 12:16 AM
Bryan Ridge from Flora Illinois

Hi Andy!
Talked to your dad tells me you are at NPR!
Love the show!
And I have many tattoos!
All the best!

Nov. 26 2013 08:46 AM
Mary Jane Walsh from New Jersey

Although I'm anti-tattoo, I find them fascinating and often beautiful. Not the ones on current youth in the U.S. that look like decals, but the ones on native people in New Zealand, the Americas and some nations in Africa. The nuns taught us that we never should desecrate our bodies, but I sure enjoyed taking the role of a tattooed woman in the play, Talking With.

Nov. 26 2013 07:33 AM
Beth from Seoul Korea (no. not with the crazy nuke guy)

I am an avid fan of Radiolab and I appreciate the humor the program carries.
Today is no exception.

I love the warning you guys had on this piece.

(WARNING: the following contains an unapologetic pro-tattoo bias. If this upsets you, please complain loudly to Soren Wheeler at

And if you cannot laugh at that email address, sir, you are living a very very dull life. I hope to hear or see more about Otzi.
Kudos, guys.
Kudos. :)

Nov. 26 2013 12:45 AM
Laura from Maine

The South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology is a super cool place. We visited in 2012 and got to see Otzi and his amazing tattoos up close and personal. He's pretty dried out, but his markings are clear as day. Quite a feat for this man who has lasted through the centuries.

Nov. 25 2013 08:30 PM

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