Ancient tattoos uncovered on 5000-year-old Egyptian mummies

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Researchers have discovered the oldest figurative tattoos in the world on two 5,000-year-old mummies from Egypt.

Vastly different to the designs of today, the tattoos are of a wild bull and a Barbary sheep on the upper-arm of a male mummy, and S-shaped motifs on the upper-arm and shoulder of a female.

The tattoos' location "suggests they were created to be highly visible", curator of physical anthropology at the British Museum Daniel Antoine told Reuters. "Only now are we gaining new insights into the lives of these remarkably preserved individuals", said Antoine, one of the lead researchers on the paper, the report revealed.

The Gebelein man has been on display since his discovery 100 years ago and is one of the museum's most popular attractions. "Both sets of tattoos would have been highly visible and may have denoted status, bravery, cult/magical knowledge or protection", said the British Museum.

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They are the so-called Gebelein mummies, coming from the pre-emptive period, before Egypt was consolidated under the first Pharaoh around 3,100 BC.

The male mummy, known as Gebelein Man A, who died from a stab wound, had dark smudges on his arm.

The practice of tattooing dates back many centuries-perhaps even further than previously thought. Incredibly, at over five thousand years of age, they push back the evidence for tattooing in Africa by a millennium'. The tattoos were applied using a carbon-based soot and could have been worn as symbols of strength.

A series of four small "S" shapes, meanwhile, runs along the right shoulder of female mummy "Gebelein Woman", mimicking a pattern that appears on Predynastic pottery decorations.

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Mr Antoine told The Times: "It is the earliest use of figurative tattoos".

The markings on these mummies are now the oldest evidence of figural tattoos on humans.

She also has a motif that is thought to represent batons used in ritual dance.

The oldest example of tattoos are on the Alpine mummy known as Ötzi, who was thought to have lived between 3370 and 3100 BC, nearly contemporary with the Gebelein pair.

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It is also the first evidence that ancient Egyptian men were tattooed as well as women. That benchmark still most likely goes to a naturally preserved mummified male named Ötzi, discovered in the Ötztal Alps in 1991. The locations of Ötzi's tattoos, on acupuncture or healing points, suggest that they were used as a pain relief treatment, whereas the tattoos on the Egyptian mummies were on highly visible areas, created to be shown off.