New research has revealed the world’s first figurative tattoos on two Egyptian mummies from the British Museum, including the oldest known example of female tattoos.

Thanks to the use of infrared technology, figurative tattoos of a wild bull and a sheep were identified on the upper arm of a male mummy, while linear and “S” motifs were distinguished on the upper arm and shoulder of a female mummy. These are the oldest tattoos that have been found on a female individual.

Top image: An Infrared image of the male mummy known as Gebelein Man A. Lower left: Detail of the tattoos observed on his right arm under infrared light. Lower right: The mummy and tattoos under normal lighting conditions. Image Credit: British Museum.

They are dated between 3351 and 3017 BC, say archaeologists indicating that the discovery is rewriting the history of tattooing.

Daniel Antoine, Curator of Physical Anthropology of the British Museum, has said in a statement that: “The use of the latest scientific methods, including CT scanning, radiocarbon dating, and infrared imaging, has transformed our understanding of the Gebelein mummies. Only now are we gaining new insights into the lives of these remarkably preserved individuals. Incredibly, at over 5,000 years of age, they push back the evidence for tattooing in Africa by a millennium.”


The mummies, which have been naturally mummified, belong the predynastic period of Egypt, the era before the unification of the country by the first pharaoh around 3,100 BC.

All the visible skin of these mummified people was examined for signs of body modification as part of a new conservation and research program.

Seen here are the Details of the S-shaped tattoos on the Predynastic female mummy from Gebelein. Image Credit: British Museum

The male mummy, known as “Gebelein Man A,” has been on display at the British Museum almost continuously since its discovery about 100 years ago.


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