Ötzi The Ice Man’s Tattoos

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But there’s no evidence for the existence of tattooing that could possibly be better than actual tattoos.  In 1991, after one of the warmest summers in recent history, in the Alps between Austria and Italy (in the Ötzal region, on the map X marks the spot), two hikers came across a body that was beginning to emerge from the melting glacial ice.

Alps Location Where Ötzi Was Found
Alps Location Where Ötzi Was Found (Photo by Lencer / CC BY)

But this was no ordinary victim of a hiking accident. Instead, the 35 year old man that had emerged would turn out to be the oldest mummy ever recovered. He died around 3230 BCE and was about 45 at the time. While the light that he sheds on the Neolithic period of Europe can (and does) fill a book, what’s important for our purposes here is that he is tattooed.

The Oldest Mummy in the World

The oldest mummy ever recovered is also the earliest known tattooed human being. That fact is, I think, no coincidence and it speaks to the great antiquity of tattooing. 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 61 separate tattoos.

Diagram of Some of Ötzi's Tattoos
Diagram of Some of Ötzi’s Tattoos

“The following details have been observed so far: two parallel stripes around the left wrist; four groups of lines to the left of the lumbar spine; one group of lines to the right of the lumbar spine; a cruciform mark on the inside of the right knee; three groups of lines on the left calf; a small cruciform mark to the left of the Achilles tendon; a group of lines on the back of the right foot; a group of lines next to the right outer ankle; a group of lines above the right inner ankle” (Konrad Spindler in The Man in the Ice , 1994).

What Is The Purpose of His Tattoos?

His tattoos mostly amount to groups of short parallel lines and their purpose may be related to their locations. The back and leg tattoos coincide with typical acupuncture points for treating back and leg pain.

Interestingly, they also coincide with areas where Ötzi (as he was nicknamed) showed evidence of osteoarthritis. In fact, the intense darkness of some of his tattoos indicate that he was tattooed in the same place repeatedly.

Acupuncture chart from Hua Shou (fl. 1340s, Yuan dynasty). This image from Shi si jing fa hui (Expression of the Fourteen Meridians). (Tokyo: Suharaya Heisuke kanko, Kyoho gan 1716).
Acupuncture chart from Hua Shou (fl. 1340s, Yuan dynasty). This image from Shi si jing fa hui (Expression of the Fourteen Meridians). (Tokyo: Suharaya Heisuke kanko, Kyoho gan 1716 / Public Domain.)

But the prevailing theory about acupuncture says that it originated in China, only about 2,000 to 3,000 years ago. So either acupuncture is much more ancient than previously thought (which could very well be) or his tattoos were not therapeutic at all but perhaps used as an ethnic identifier, a good luck charm, or were simply body art.

Other Possibilities

My own opinion, as average and conservative as can be, is that Ötzi’s tattoos probably resulted from some combination of these and perhaps other motivations at which we can only guess. There’s no reason to believe that all of his tattoos were done for the same purpose.

Archeoparc ( Schnals valley / South Tyrol ). Reconstruction of Neolithic Clothes worn by Ötzi.
Reconstruction of Neolithic Clothes worn by Ötzi. Archeoparc (Schnals valley / South Tyrol / Photo by Wolfgang Sauber/ CC BY)

Tattoos as Ritual?

Playing devil’s advocate, acupuncture seems likely but using ink is not a necessary part of the process. While displaying his ethnic or tribal affiliation may have been done using his tattoos, many of them are not easily visible given his clothing.

From what we know of the artistic expression of early peoples, art is almost never art for art’s sake, such that tattoos being done purely as body art seems unlikely. Many groups of people across the globe and through time have used tattooing in rites of passage from adolescence into adulthood.  In that Otzi was an adult, it’s even possible that his tattoos represent such a ritual.

Reconstruction of Ötzi
Reconstruction of Ötzi (Photo by Mannivu / CC BY)

Frankly, the speculation can go back and forth without end. The only real facts with which we are left are that Ötzi is tattooed and that we’ll probably never know exactly why.  Even so, the fact remains that the most ancient human skin ever discovered is tattooed.

Of course the latest on Ötzi is that he may have been attacked and fought with his attackers. You know they probably saw his tattoos and realized he was from a different gang.

Frequently Asked Questions

What ethnicity was Ötzi the Iceman?

Through analysis of his DNA, Ötzi is most closely related to Southern Europeans, particularly populations in Corsica and Sardinia.

What country owns Ötzi?

Ötzi and his artifacts have been exhibited at the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology in Bolzano, Italy since 1998, although their ownership was contested by Austria.

What was Ötzi’s height?

Ötzi was about 1.6 metres (5 feet 2 inches) tall and weighed about 50 kg (110 pounds).

March 5, 2023