Ötzi The Iceman's Tattoos: What The Oldest Tattoos Ever Discovered Meant For Our Copper Age Ancestors

ötzi the iceman

A thorough scan of Ötzi The Iceman's mummified body determined that his 61 tattoos served a medical purpose.

We’ve all heard that tattoos have been around since the dawn of time and that they represented the wearer's achievements or social status in their community. Well, recently, research on the oldest tattoos ever recorded has showed that our Copper Age ancestors might have used tattoos for healing and medicinal purposes. As you might know, the oldest mummy ever discovered is none other than Ötzi, also known as “The Iceman,” found in 1991 at the Austro-Italian border. Since its discovery, 61 tattoos have been identified on the well-preserved body, giving us a great idea of what our ancestors' lives were like some 5,300 years ago.


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After different studies on Ötzi, including genetic tests and CAT scans, it was determined that he died at the age of 45 from a wound. At first, it was believed that the geometrical tattoos found on his body, which included assembled lines and one cross, had a spiritual meaning or cultural value important to his community. It was also determined that these tattoos were made by rubbing soot or ashes into a fresh incision, so that the pigment would stay trapped inside once the wound healed. This technique is the same one identified on many other mummies found to use the art of tattooing for decorative and differentiation purposes. However, when they got Ötzi's genome results, they discovered that his many tattoos were more related to a medicinal technique.


Among the many ailments Ötzi suffered from, the ones that seemed the most problematic for his everyday life were gallbladder stones, osteochondrosis, and a debilitating joint disorder. 60 of his tattoos were placed right on the parts where he had the most physical deterioration, mostly his joints. This is crucial to understanding why people in the Copper Age adopted tattooing, but it has also led scientists to believe that other civilizations understood and practiced acupuncture way before the ancient Chinese. The fact that Ötzi’s tattoos are located in places that hurt him could be very strong evidence that the geometric designs were actually indicators of where to poke him to relieve his pain.


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Now, I said that 60 of his tattoos were placed mainly on his joints, so what about the other one? The last tattoo on Ötzi’s skin was found in 2015, and it was a huge surprise for the researchers because, unlike the others, it wasn’t located on any joint. This tattoo, which consists of four parallel lines each measuring about 2.5 centimeters, is located on Ötzi’s chest. According to Dr. Albert Zink (director of the Institute for Mummies and the Iceman in Bolzano), the previous tattoos might be a very ancient and primitive technique to treat rheumatism, but what was the last one for?


During the many tests that were made on Ötzi’s body, it was also discovered that the middle-aged man suffered from Lyme disease (the result of a tick bite that can, among other symptoms, produce an alteration in the heart) and heart disease. This part is connected with the location of the 61st tattoo, as scientists and specialists believe it was a treatment for chest pains. So, while this one doesn’t really correspond to the other acupuncture points, it still helps us understand how people of the Copper Age, and probably as far back as the Stone Age, diagnosed and treated diseases. 


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The studies identifying all of Ötzi’s tattoos have concluded after a very thorough scan all over his body through a non-invasive technique called multispectral photographic imaging techniques. Now, all this effort has and will be focused on going beyond their hypothesis to prove whether they’re right, and also to understand if tattoos were only used as medical treatments, or if they also had an important, symbolic meaning in their communities. Body art has been around for thousands of years, but this medical purpose (beyond spiritual) is something that sheds a lot of light on how we have been evolving since the dawn of time.



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María Isabel Carrasco Cara Chards

María Isabel Carrasco Cara Chards


Creative Writer
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