Iceman has the world’s oldest tattoos

Dozens of marks dot the body of 5,000-year-old European mummy

Ötzi the Iceman

MARKED MAN  A dispute over which of two ancient mummies sports the oldest known tattoos has been settled in favor of Ötzi the Iceman, who died roughly 5,250 years ago. Locations of Ötzi’s tattoos, which consist of groups of lines created by rubbing charcoal into skin incisions, are denoted by red boxes.

A. Deter-Wolf et al/Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports 2016

In a battle over which of two mummified guys possesses the world’s oldest known tattoos, Ötzi the Iceman has triumphed.

Hikers found Ötzi’s 5,250-year-old body poking out of ice in the Italian Alps in 1991. Ötzi’s 61 tattoos — groups of dark lines on his left wrist, lower legs, back and ribs — were produced by rubbing charcoal into skin incisions.

A mummified man from South America’s Chinchorro culture sports mustachelike lines of tattooed dots on each side of his nose, which some researchers regard as the world’s oldest tattoos. But a new analysis of previous radiocarbon dating indicates that the Chinchorro man — whose body was excavated in Chile in the 1980s — lived no more than 4,563 years ago, say archaeologist Aaron Deter-Wolf of the Tennessee Division of Archaeology in Nashville and his colleagues.

Multiple misinterpretations of the dating had put the Chilean man at 6,000, then 8,000 years old. However, the scientists conclude in the February 2016 Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports that Ötzi is at least 500 years older than his inked competitor from the south. 

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.

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