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Scientists find world's oldest figural tattoos on Egyptian mummies

Archaeologists believe the tattoos denoted status and bravery.

By
Brooks Hays
Researchers found a picture of a wild bull and Barbary sheep inked on the arm of an ancient Egyptian mummy. Photo courtesy the British Museum
Researchers found a picture of a wild bull and Barbary sheep inked on the arm of an ancient Egyptian mummy. Photo courtesy the British Museum

March 1 (UPI) -- Scientists have discovered a pair of ancient tattoos on two 5,000-year-old Egyptian mummies. They are the oldest figural tattoos yet found, pushing back the advent of tattooing in Africa some 1,000 years.

The body art was found on a pair of mummies in the collection of the British Museum. The male and female were embalmed and laid to rest sometime between 3351 and 3017 BC.

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A depiction of a wild bull and Barbary sheep mark the upper bicep of the male, while the female is inked with S-shaped motifs on her upper arm and shoulder. Scientists believe soot was used to create the tattoos.

The mummies were found more than a 100 years ago in Gebelein, an ancient city in southern Upper Egypt. A century later, they're offering up new secrets. Scientists discovered the ancient tattoos with the help of advanced imaging technology, specifically infrared imaging.

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"Only now are we gaining new insights into the lives of these remarkably preserved individuals," Daniel Antoine, the museum's curator of physical anthropology, said in a news release.

Until now, scientists thought only women sported tattoos, but the practice was apparently enjoyed by both genders. Archaeologists believe the tattoos denoted status and bravery.

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Scientists shared their discovery in a new paper published in the Journal of Archaeological Science.

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Tattoos weren't uncommon during prehistory. In 2016, scientists shared the discovery of a woman, a mummy from dynastic Egypt, with animal and flower tattoos -- at the time, the first non-geometric tattoos.

A female Alpine mummy of similar age as the Gebelein mummies has previously revealed evidence of tattoos, but only of the geometric sort.

It's possible older evidence of tattooing is out there to be found. In the wake of the British Museum's find, archaeologists are likely to use infrared imaging to re-examine many of the mummies stored in museums around the world.

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Pottery figurines found in Japan suggests the practice of tattoo art has been present on the Asian island for 12,000 years.

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