(WARNING: the following contains an unapologetic pro-tattoo bias. If this upsets you, please complain loudly to Soren Wheeler at firstname.lastname@example.org)
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!
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.
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.
All of Ötzi’s tattoos are simple lines, dots or equal-armed crosses.
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 email@example.com.
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.