Oldest 'tattoo art' discovered on Ancient Egyptian mummies

Story highlights

  • World's oldest figurative tattoos discovered
  • They include animals thought to represent status and power

(CNN)The world's oldest figurative tattogos have been discovered on two 5,000-year-old mummies from Egypt.

Tattoos depicting a wild bull and a Barbary sheep were found on the upper arm of a male mummy, while the shoulder and upper arm of a female mummy bore "S" shaped motifs.
The find, details of which are published in the Journal of Archaeological Science, pushes back evidence for the tattooing in Africa by 1,000 years, and it overturns the belief that only women were tattooed in Predynastic Egypt -- the era before the country's unification by the first pharaoh at around 3100 BCE.
    "The symbols being tattooed are quite extraordinary," Daniel Antoine, one of the lead researchers in the project and British Museum's curator of physical anthropology, tells CNN.

    A sign of status, magical power or just art?

    Antoine says that the animals on the man, especially the bull, are likely to be associated with status, power and virility. Both horned animals are frequently depicted in Predynastic Egyptian art. Similarly, the S-motifs that run vertically over the woman's right shoulder were also used in pottery decoration at the time.
    Antoine points out that the mummies -- who, according to radiocarbon dating, lived between 3351 and 3017 BC -- were from the period before Egyptian hieroglyphs came into use. This makes it harder to determine the meanings behind the symbols, as all they have to go on is parallels with imagery found elsewhere.