Contradicting the fact that social sciences’ are growing a fascination for tattoos, and historical studies have been made on the subject; this old practice has left little to none historical records. A few archaeology sites have accidentally recovered some proof that tattoos have been around a long time ago.
We now know that body art, and specifically this type is over five thousand years old. The tattoos discovered are as diverse as the people who wore them.
Throughout history tattoos were used for many purposes, always personal. Sometimes plain like simple lines and dots, sometimes elaborate or pictographic these served as status symbols, amulets, signs for religious beliefs, declarations of love and loyalty and in some cases forms of punishment or exile.
Some rough instruments believed to have been used in tattooing were discovered over a few archaeological sites all over Europe dating from 10,000 BC to 38,000 BC.
Otzi the Iceman has given us the proof that tattooing was a Eurasian practice since Neolithic times. Dated circa 3300 BC, Otzi, bore fifty seven individual tattoos; a cross on the inside of the left knee, six straight lines above the kidneys each 15 centimeters long. Other numerous small parallel lines along the legs, ankles and lumbar region make us believe that those were therapeutically tattoos and had not much to do with symbolism.
Several tattooed mummies of a Western Asian/European physical type were revealed in the Tarim Basin in West China, Xinjiang. Though these are relatively unknown, studies show that some of them could date from the end of the 2nd millennium BC.
After the Second World War, some archaeologists were excavating a long row of graves in the Altai Mountains of Southern Siberia. These graves were permanently frozen, so everything was perfectly preserved. Within one of the graves archaeologists found a well preserved chieftain with some magnificent tattoos, the oldest known pictographic tattoos. Displaying different totem and game animals, the tattoos are all done in a very distinct style, which is repeated in anything else that they made at the time. All lined up along his spinal column and around the right ankle, he bore a series of dots, monsters and a detailed range of fish.
In ancient China tattoos were associated with thieves and criminals since the Zhou Dynasty, 1045 BC to 256 BC. Tattooing the symbol “prisoner” on a convicted criminal or a slave’s face was a common practice until the last dynasty Qing Dynasty, 1644 to 1912. In the more recent Japanese history, 1720 to 1870, tattoos were also used as a form of punishment for criminals. These tattoos served as a visible mark for those who had no place in “decent society”. Criminal often received a ring on their arm for each crime committed, this easily conveyed their criminality. This practice replaced having ears and noses removed.
Like tattoos on human skin, different cultures and practices left a permanent mark in the history of tattooing up to the current modern days.