Tattoo History

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Tattoo history can likely be traced back to at least Upper Paleolithic times, when tattoos may have been used in the same way they’re being used in the present day: as a form of ritual modification, a curative measure, or a symbol of belonging. The drive to create tattoos is a strong one, with us as much now as it was in the ancient world. The following articles dive into the rich and sometimes strange history of tattoos, starting with earliest evidence found in an archaeological site.

The Tattoo Timeline

Unfortunately, we don’t know where or when people began to wear tattoos. That’s because the archaeological record is incomplete when it comes to what humans have done with their skins. While fossilized bones may survive for hundreds of thousands of years, the skin of tattooed people is preserved only in very special circumstances. What, then, can we say about the earliest evidence for tattooing? The evidence is entirely circumstantial and completely unclear–but let’s not let that stop us. The earliest evidence comes from an Upper Paleolithic cave, approximately 12,000 years old, excavated in the Pyrenees Mountains of Southern France, known as the Grottes du Mas d’Azil (or Cave of the Azil Farmhouse). Read more…

The oldest preserved tattoos ever recovered belong to the earliest known tattooed human being. That fact is, I think, no coincidence and it speaks to the great antiquity of tattooing traditions. Researchers who examined the finds were surprised not only at the remarkable preservation of his body and the artifacts associated with him, but also the presence of 59 separate tattoos. Read more…

Otzi the Ice Man Mummy
Otzi, the Ice Man Mummy

The tattooed mummy of Chinchorro was found in the Atacama Desert of northern Chile, one of the driest spots in the world, and is thus one of the oldest and best-preserved mummies of the New World. Read more…

Chinchorro Mummies
Chinchorro Mummies (Photo by unknown / CC BY)

Celebrated and well known in the body art industry but perhaps less so in archaeology is our next case of ancient tattooing with evidence from ancient Egypt. During the course of the Middle Kingdom the first incontrovertible evidence of tattooing in Egypt enters the record. That evidence takes the form of tattoos preserved on a mummy from Thebes. Read more…

By the time of the New Kingdom, ancient Egyptian tattooing is a firmly established art form. During this time, tattoos continue to be reserved exclusively for women but they are dramatically transformed.  Read more…

In tattoo history, the most famous of early representational tattoos is to be found in Russia, near the border with China. The Pazyryk people thrived in these steppes and mountains of the Altay region in the sixth through the second centuries B.C.E. They were horsemen whose passion was the hunt, shepherds ready to fight for better pastures, and artists who knew the natural world. Read more…

Siberian Pazyryk Ice Maiden
Siberian Pazyryk Ice Maiden

“In the old City of Jerusalem one afternoon in 1956 I discovered a collection of woodblocks which struck me as unique in character.” So begins John Carswell’s compellingly simple account of his discovery of the remnants of a deep history of tattooing in the Holy Land that goes back in written records to at least the mid-6th century and quite possibly much earlier. Read more…

According to Merriam-Webster, 1777 is when the word “tattoo” entered into English usage, with the meaning of inked images in skin, and was put into the dictionary. However, we can reasonably trace a likely derivation of the word which precedes that given date among European sailors. We know from the records of the 1769 expedition of James Cook to the South Pacific that there was a Tahitian word tatau, which means “to mark”. Read more…

Polynesian Tattooing
Polynesian Tattooing (from Tattoos From Paradise, Blackburn, 1999)

When the noted Maori chief Te Pēhi Kupe visited England in 1826, he made the following remark: “Europe man write with pen his name – Te Pēhi’s is here.” He pointed to the traditional tā moko (tattooing) on his forehead. Despite the intervention of early Christian missionaries, this unique form of facial tattooing survived. Read more…

Te Pehi Kupe
Te Pēhi Kupe (By John Henry Sylvester – National Library of Australia, Public Domain)

1865, American Civil War

Some of the earliest written records of American tattooing happen to be of memorial tattoos and specifically those that commemorate the military life, comrades, and patriotism in general. As early as the Civil War, tattooists such as Martin Hildebrandt plied their trade among soldiers near battlefields, shifting from Union to Confederate and back again, as business dictated. But military tattooing may go back as early as Julius Caesar. In this article on Military Tattoos, I cover the entire history–including the Civil War.

Kearsarge Tattoo Design
Kearsarge Tattoo Design

Turning to an area of the New World where traditional tattooing likely had a long history before the arrival of Europeans, we visit the Pacific Northwest, where we do at least have some information on the technology and motivation for tattooing among the Haida of Queen Charlotte Islands. Read more…

Remarkably similar to the moko of the women of New Zealand, as well as the tattoos of Inuit women and the Ainu of Japan, facial tattoos were widely practiced among women in virtually all parts of Native California. Indigenous people across the state created permanent marks on their skin in ingenious ways. Read more…

Mr. McCann, Hupa, measuring dentalium shell money against tattoo marks on his forearm.  Photograph by Pliny E. Goddard, 1901
Mr. McCann, Hupa, measuring dentalium shell money against tattoo marks on his forearm. Photograph by Pliny E. Goddard, 1901

Tattoo history wouldn’t be complete without a trip to the Theravada temple of Wat Bang Phra, about thirty miles west of Bangkok. Saffron robes, glittering statues, embroidered umbrellas, and paper lanterns are expected sights on the day of a festival. But at this Buddhist temple, the monks are also tattoo artists and their blessings are permanents marks on the human body. Read more…

Wat Bang Phra Temple in Thailand
Wat Bang Phra Temple in Thailand (By Phydoughx / Public Domain)

Frequently Asked Questions

Who started traditional tattoos?

Because ancient human skin is rarely preserved, we can’t really say. But I would bet that ancient cultures the world over have practiced indigenous tattooing, and even had specialists that today we would call tattoo artists, that would extend the history of tattooing before the Neolithic.

What is the purpose of tattoos?

There is no single purpose of tattoos. From Native Americans in prehistory to the tattooed lady in a present day carnival, people create tattoos for almost any form of cultural significance: they are religious symbols, a right of passage, a mark of beauty, a memorial, a punishment, a medical treatment, a form of self-expression to name only a few in the long history of tattooing.

What cultures use tattoos?

Almost every culture known to history has used some form of body modification, but not all have used tattoos. For example, in areas where skin is rich in melanin and hence darker, scarification was more common.

March 23, 2023