How Ötzi Got His Ink

This exercise is a part of Educator Guide: Data Literacy and The Iceman’s Tattoos / View Guide
A photo of the preserved remains of Ötzi the Iceman’s left wrist which has visible tattooed lines
Tattooed lines on Ötzi the Iceman’s left wrist, like others on his body, were created by poking holes in the skin with a pointed, pigment-coated tool, researchers say.South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology, M. Samadelli/Eurac, G. Staschitz

Directions for teachers:

To engage students before reading the article, have them answer the “Before Reading” questions as a warmup in class. Then, instruct students to read the online Science News article “How Ötzi the Iceman really got his tattoos.” Afterward, have them answer the “During Reading” questions.

As an optional extension, instruct students to answer the “After Reading” questions as a class discussion or as homework.

This article also appears in the May 4 & 18 issue of Science News. Science News Explores offers another version of the same article written at a middle-school reading level. Post this set of questions without answers for your students using this link.

Directions for students:

Read the online Science News article “How Ötzi the Iceman really got his tattoos.” Then answer the following questions as directed by your teacher.

Before Reading

1. Why do you think tattoos last longer than simply marking your skin with a permanent marker? What do you think causes tattoos to fade over time?

Tattooing needles place the ink below the upper layer of skin. The ink will remain there indefinitely whereas ink on top of your skin will eventually exfoliate away. Tattoos will fade over time as the ink under the skin begins to break down.

2. “Ötzi the iceman” lived around 3300 BCE and is the oldest known human to have tattoos. What are some reasons that ancient people might have had for getting tattoos?

Answers will vary.

During Reading

1. Where and when was Ötzi the mummy discovered?

Ötzi was discovered in 1991 in the Italian Alps, along the border of Austria and Italy.

2. Briefly describe the method by which scientists initially thought Ötzi got his tattoos.

Scientists thought initially that Ötzi rubbed charcoal ash into cuts in his skin.

3. Besides carrying out experiments, what other evidence did Aaron Deter-Wolf and his team use to devise a new theory about how Ötzi got his tattoos?

Aaron Deter-Wolf and his team reviewed traditional tattooing practices around the world.

4. How many tattooing methods did the researchers test?

Researchers tested four tattooing methods.

5. Explain the process for the tattooing method that used a needle and thread.

A needle attached to a pigment-infused thread was pulled through the skin to create the tattoo.

6. Describe two specific observations by researchers that supported the conclusion that Ötzi got his tattoos via the “hand poke” technique.

When researchers compared the test subject’s tattoos with Ötzi’s, the “hand poke” technique matched most closely. Researchers observed that both had the same small dot pattern and irregular pigment bleeding along the edges.

After Reading

1.  Quantitative evidence refers to measured data containing numbers and units. In contrast, qualitative evidence relies on descriptions. Which type of evidence is mentioned more in this article? Support your answer with a specific example. Then, describe one way that the lesser-used type of evidence could be integrated into a similar experiment.

Answers will vary, but many will likely say that this article describes more qualitative evidence. Specific examples could include pointing out the pattern of dots or the observed leakage of pigment into the tattoo’s surrounding tissues. One option for using more quantitative evidence would be for the article to include measurements of the ink content at different distances from the tattoo lines.

2. How many test subjects were tattooed in this study? The answer to this question is crucial, as the sample size is an important factor used to assess the validity of scientific studies. Generally, experiments with a larger number of test subjects yield more reliable results than those with only a few. Could the sample size of this study lead to misleading results?

In this study, only one test subject was tattooed, which is a small sample size. This could potentially lead to misleading results, as the tattoo healing process of this one test subject might not be representative of what is typical. It’s important to consider the implications of this small sample size on the validity of the study’s conclusions.

3. The researchers in this study took an unconventional approach by testing their tattooing techniques on human test subjects. With that in mind, describe one potential reason for the small sample size in this study.

One potential reason for this small sample size is that the researchers struggled to find volunteers willing to be tattooed.