Body Art

Tattooing Has Been with Us from the Beginning, Apparently

Tattooing may be the hottest fashion statement going these days, but it is an ancient practice, and its origin is clouded in mystery. The deliberate and indelible marking of the skin has been an essential and integral part of ancient cultures around the globe; its designs have served as amulets, status symbols, declarations of love, signs of religious beliefs, adornments, and even forms of punishment.

The word ‘tattoo’ is believed to have been borrowed from the Tahitian word ‘tatau,’ which translates as “to mark something.” It also appears in the Samoan lexicon where it means “open wound” and in the Polynesian language (hahau) where it means “to strike or pierce.” Regardless of the language, a tattoo implies the creation of a permanent mark or figure on the body. They have been created by piercing, cutting or inscribing the skin with pointed bones, thorns, needles, and inserting colored materials beneath its surface, thus effectively discoloring it for good. From plain to elaborate, how far back the practice goes is unknown; but the anecdotal and direct evidence associated with tattooing tells us that this practice is, indeed, very ancient.

Few stories regarding the origin of tattooing have survived. One Maori myth tells the story of a young warrior named Mataora who fell in love with Niwareka, the princess of a race of Turehu, who lived in the Maori underworld. Mataora and Niwareka were married and lived happily together for a while. One day Mataora, jealous of the advances of the chieftain’s elder brother and in a fit of rage, struck his wife who ran away and returned home to the underworld. The young couple, ultimately resolving their differences, decided to return to the world above. Before their return, though, Niwareka’s father, the king of the underworld, taught Mataora the art of ta moko (tattooing), so Mataora brought the skill back to his people.

On the island of Tahiti, legend tells us that the first tattoos were emblazoned on the sons of the god Ta’aroa, the Polynesian supreme creator god. Ta’aroa’s sons, Matamata and Tū Ra’i Pō, taught this craft to man, who used it extensively.

Outside of myth and legend, the earliest anecdotal evidence to support tattooing appears in the art of the Paleolithic era in Europe. Found on the left shoulder of the 40,000-year-old Löwenmensch figurine or Lion man of the Hohlenstein Stadel are a series of parallel lines. These lines, according to some researchers into this ancient practice, suggest that tattooing was part of human culture as early as the “creative explosion.” Additional evidence, from the same period, may be found on the small ivory statue, the Venus of Hohle Fels. Dated to between 35,000 to 40,000 years ago, this figure shows a series of incised lines on the abdomen, chest, and both of her arms. These inscribed lines are also thought to indicate primitive tattoos.

Those who argue that tattooing originated during the Paleolithic Age, however, are countered by skeptics who say that it is impossible to determine if the inscribed lines seen on these ancient figures are actually permanent decorations. The marks appearing on these early figures, they reason, may represent nothing more than paint or other kind of temporary body art.

Additional evidence of a possible early tattooing tradition has been unearthed in Chatelperron France at the site of Grotte de Fees (Fairy Grotto). In 1867, sharpened flint tools and bowls containing traces of red and black pigments were discovered. Bowls with traces of red ochre and sharp needle-shaped bones have also been found in France, Scandinavia, and Portugal. These discoveries have been dated to about 12,000 years ago. Archaeologists Saint-Just Péquart and Marthe Péquart have argued that these primitive tools provide conclusive evidence of ancient tattooing. Detractors, however, point out that these same tools could have been used for a multitude of different purposes. Agnieszka Marczak in her article “Tattoo World” states: “Although these material remains are intriguing, and the archaeologists themselves identified these implements as tattoo tools, we have no tattooed human skin preserved from this time period; therefore, it cannot conclusively be said that these instruments were not used for some other purpose.”

Tattoo anthropologist, Lars Krutak, argues that the only way to conclusively date the art of tattooing is through direct evidence, namely a tattoo on preserved human skin. The unfortunate nature of permanent body markings is that, unlike stone, the skin begins to degrade shortly after death. While many ancient burial sites contain skeletal remains, early tombs with intact bodies are rare.

The earliest, although not first, intact tattooed individual was discovered in 1991. Hikers through the Ötztal Alps came across the mummified body of a man frozen in the ice of an ancient alpine glacier. Tests indicated that this man, dubbed ‘the Iceman’ or ‘Ötzi,’ lived about 5,000 years ago. One of the remarkable things about him is that his body is covered with 61 tattoos. The markings are located on his left wrist, lower legs, back and torso.

The Ötzi tattoos, surprisingly, are not, as one might expect, decorative in nature. Grouped in a series of lines or crosses, they are dark blue and are believed to have been made by using soot possibly raked from a fireplace. The mummified remains of Ötzi are not the only ones that come to us from the remote past. Hundreds of ancient mummies with tattooed bodies have been unearthed around the world, in locations such as Egypt, Africa, Europe, China, Siberia, the Philippines, Alaska, Greenland, Mexico, and South America. These dispersed discoveries reveal just how widely practiced, and globally encompassing, this tradition was. It also implies that the practice of permanently marking the body was well understood and integrated in their communities long before these individuals lived and died.

Tattoos have served a number of purposes over the years. Unfortunately for us, many of the rites and traditions associated with the art, as well as the inherent meaning of the inscribed symbols themselves, have been lost or wiped out by invading “modern” Western civilizations. Thankfully, in a few cultures, where there were strong tattooing traditions, early anthropologists had an opportunity to observe this ritual and to derive insights into the painful and bloody procedure.

Tattoos were not randomly given. The process necessitated the drawing of blood. Blood in these cultures was inherently sacred. Interacting with this divine substance brought along with it a large number of cultural taboos. Prior to this sacrosanct ritual tradition came dancing, chanting, and the enactment of other ceremonial rites. The hallowed nature of tattoos required those who were to undergo the procedure to fast, abstain from sexual relations, and to perform ritual cleansing. It was a serious and celebratory matter, not to be taken lightly.

The signs and symbols our ancestors used to adorn their bodies were filled with meaning. The patterns and their relative placement had significance. Symbols or images of animals were thought to connect the individual with the spirit of their animal totem. The same held true in some cultures with images of gods. The profound representation of these symbols that were once fixed in the hearts and minds of our ancestors are now clouded in speculation, and their inherent meanings debated.

There are, it seems, a number of reasons why our ancestors got tattooed. Intriguingly, they all fall into a small yet consistent handful of themes. The most common purpose for getting a tattoo was its role in some initiatory rite. Pubescent teens, in many early and indigenous cultures, were tattooed as a rite of passage from boyhood to maturity. Young adults, usually male, who were not tattooed, were considered “boys” even after puberty. This stigma followed them throughout life. They were seen as having a lower social status. The young man could not get married or participate in the hunt. In some groups he could not speak in the presence of grown men. He would be branded a coward; and an incomplete tattoo would be a permanent marking of his cowardice. He would become an outcast of the tribe and would bring shame upon his family.

A tattoo might identify one’s genealogy or position in society. It might record one’s personal achievements, battles won, or enemies killed. Permanent external signs, like tattoos, make it easier to distinguish friend from foe and the married from the single. They were believed to make a person more attractive to the opposite sex or appear fierce in battle. This external marking, in cultures that have strong marriage taboos associated with clan alliances, would quickly let an individual know if a potential mate was from an approved clan or not.

Many cultures saw tattooing as a way of contacting or connecting with spirits. They were used as amulets and magical adornments. Tattoos often identified an individual’s spiritual worth. Some cultures believed their markings could help them pass undeterred into the afterlife and could help them avoid becoming a ghost wandering the earth for eternity. Tattoos also aided married couples in finding each other in the spirit world, and allowed the departed to be recognized by their ancestors in the hereafter. In an ancient Iban proverb we are told “a man without tattoos is invisible to the Gods.”

Tattoos were also used in a number of cultures to brand slaves and to identify criminals. It is thought by some biblical historians that the mark Cain received on his forehead after killing his brother Able was a tattoo. These scholars also suggest that instead of traveling into the land of Nod, Cain was sold off as a slave.

The indication of power, social status, or pedigree are not the only things tattoos for which were used. Evidence has come forward that suggests some tattoos were applied for their curative properties. This is the case with Ötzi. The majority of the tattoos that cover his body are arraigned in groups of one, two, three, four, and even seven parallel lines that run lengthwise on his body. Examination by three separate acupuncture societies revealed that many of the lines tattooed on Ötzi’s body are located on traditional Chinese acupuncture points. The cross-shaped tattoos on his left ankle and knee correspond to acupuncture trigger points.

Nowadays, acupuncture is sought out for the relief of pain, where specific points are activated along channels known as meridians. Fifteen of Ötzi tattoos are located on the bladder meridian. This meridian is traditionally targeted for the relief of back pain. The crossed tattoo patterns found near his left ankle are considered in acupuncture texts as the “master point for back pain.” Physical examination of Ötzi’s body revealed that he suffered from severe knee, hip, ankle, and back issues as well as abdominal disorders.

The placement of the tattoos on Ötzi’s body potentially indicates something else—that the concepts associated with the ancient healing tradition of acupuncture were well understood some 5,000 years ago.

Medical treatment is also suggested in the tattoos of a 1000-year-old woman found in the sands of the Chiribaya Alta region of the Southern Peruvian desert. Her body is covered with decorative tattoos of birds, reptiles, and apes as well as other symbols on her hands, arms, and lower left leg. On her back and neck are also a series of different-sized circular tattoos in seemingly random positions. These tattoos, unlike the others that adorn her body, do not appear to be decorative in nature. This has lead researchers to wonder if they, like Ötzi’s, were medicinal.

Microscopy techniques to determine what the tattoos were made of were carried out by Maria Anna Pabst from the University of Graz in Austria. Her finds indicate that the markings were made of soot, a material commonly used in ancient tattoos. The irregular circular tattoos, on the other hand, were made of partially burned plant material. This led Pabst to infer that the woman may have experienced additional health benefits from the plant matter used. Pabst also points out that the circles found on the woman’s neck paralleled traditional acupuncture points that would be used for relaxation or to relieve neck pain.

Today, tattooing has reached the mainstream. Such decorative markings are seen as a way for individuals to express themselves and their individuality in a modern fashion, but their use is based upon ancient tradition. Like many ritualized customs performed by early cultures, however, the worldwide practice of tattooing seems somewhat counterintuitive. Why would people intentionally and deliberately maim themselves? Why would they expose themselves to something so painful and risky? Yet despite the paradox, tattooing has been practiced, at one time or another, by nearly every society on the planet and it continues to hold strong cultural significance in many societies today.


© Copyright Rita Louise, Inc.— 2016. All rights reserved. Dr. Louise is author of ET Chronicles: What Myth & Legend Have To Say About Human Origin; Dark Angels: An Insider’s Guide To Ghosts, Spirits & Attached Entities; and other books. For more information go to or listen to her live at


By Rita Louise, Ph.D.