Mummies with the oldest tattoos

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Using infrared imaging technology a team at the British Museum has uncovered tattoos on two ancient Egyptian mummies, revealing the oldest ever discovered examples of figurative tattoos.

The world's oldest figural tattoos on male mummy Gebelein Man at the British Museum (© Trustees of the British Museum)

Dating to between 3351 to 3017 BC, figural tattoos of a wild bull and a Barbary sheep were identified on the upper arm of a male mummy.

Horned animals and geometric motifs have been found tattooed on two Egyptian mummies.

"The symbols being tattooed are quite extraordinary", said Daniel Antoine, one of the lead researchers in the project and the British Museum's curator of physical anthropology.

"Only now are we gaining new insights into the lives of these remarkably preserved individuals", he continued.

The Museum also discovered a linear motif-"similar to objects held by figures participating in ceremonial activities on painted ceramics of the same period"-on her right arm".

The practice of tattooing appears to be 1,000 years older than anyone knew.

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The male mummy, known as "Gebelein Man A" has been on display in the British Museum nearly continuously since his discovery around 100 years ago. One male and one female, the mummies date back more than 5,000 years. It's abstract drawings - a series of small S-shaped label on the right shoulder and a line with a slightly curved upper end on the right hand.

"The location of these tattoos suggests they were created to be highly visible on the upper arm and the shoulder", he said, adding that the discoveries push back by 1,000 years evidence for tattooing in Africa.

Previously, archaeologists had thought only women wore tattoos in the ancient past, but the discovery of tattoos on the male mummy now shows body modification concerned both sexes.

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

Tattoos on the Predynastic female mummy from Gebelein.

Ötzi, who lived around 5,200 years ago, would have done lots of walking im the Alps and it is thought the tattoos may have been a kind of acupuncture to ease joint pains. 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.

These finds demonstrate conclusively that tattooing was practised during Egypt's Predynastic period (c. 4000-3100 BC) by both men and women.