What Culture Started Tattoos?


Tattoos are more popular and prevalent in everyday life than they ever have been. That’s what it feels like anyway. Modern tattoos were often associated more with the fringes of society. For example, in the army and navy, soldiers and naval officers would have them done to symbolize their time in service. Motorcycle gangs, rap, rock, and punk cultures all have tattoos ingrained into them.

However, if you have done any investigation into the history of tattoos you will know they were even more widespread and popular across entire civilizations in the past. Which culture is responsible for first introducing it, though? That is an intriguing question that has been debated about for years and up until recently, historians and interested parties thought they had the answer.

Where The Name Comes From

The name tattoo is Tahitian in origin, from their word that means to strike or mark, ‘Tatau’. Unlike modern tattoo machines like those at DefianceManufacturing.com that is based on Samuel O’Reilly’s original patented mode, developed in 1891, these ancient tattoos were tapped into skin with the use of sharp bone or sticks. Modern machines have needles that move upwards and downwards at speeds of around 50 to 3000 vibrations a minute and only penetrate 1mm into the skin to deliver the required pigments.

As our bodies treat these pigments as foreign elements that are non-toxic that need to be contained, that’s how the body treats them.

Egypt and Tattoos

Originally, it was believed that Egypt owned the monopoly on starting tattooing because several Egyptian mummies were dated back to the great pyramid’s construction. That means they are more than 4,000 years old. That was until indirect evidence was discovered, such as statuettes that had engraved designs very often associated with the use of needles and discs made of clay that contained ochre. These suggested that tattooing as a practice may have been more prevalent even earlier than the Egyptians.

Otzi the Mummy

A huge discovery was made, very accidentally, that made it clear that tattooing was not restricted to Egyptian culture. Two German hikers found a mummy, nicknamed Otzi while climbing the Alps close to the border between Italy and Austria. It was given the name Otzi because that’s the valley where it was discovered and it is believed to have been around 5,300 years old, having been preserved by the ice.

When it was analyzed it was found that it was a man and he had died between 30 and 45 years old. Although there is a lot of mystery surrounding his death, it is thought it was most likely a very violent one.

There were 50 lines and crosses etched into his body, which is at this point now the earliest form of tattooing ever found. These were on the ankle joints, knees, and spine. Curiously, these are consistent with traditional acupuncture points in ancient Chinese medicine. In particular, these points were used in the treating of stomach upset and back pain.

Curiously, this mummy called Otzi lived about 2,000 years before the earliest recorded evidence we have of when acupuncture was first used and the location where he was found couldn’t be further away from China.

What Do Ethnographic and Historic Texts Reveal?

With this new information and the historical and ethnographic texts we have access to, it is believed that tattooing may have been used by all human cultures throughout history. For example, in Ancient Greece, tattoos were used during the 5th century by spies to communicate with other spies. Then Romans used them to mark slaves and criminals. Japanese criminals had a single line tattooed across their forehead for their first offense, then an arch for their second offense, and for a third, another line to complete the symbol in Japanese for a dog.

There is also lots of evidence that suggests the Aztecs, Incans and Mayans used tattoos as a part of rituals, and that even in ancient Briton some ceremonies involved tattoos.


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