Tattoos on the Predynastic male mummy from Gebelein

This mummy, known as Gebelein Man A, had a wild bull and a goat-like creature inked on his arm, possibly as symbols of power or strength. Credit: Trustees of the British Museum

Anthropology

Mummies sport the oldest animal tattoos

Ancient Egyptian body art also included ritual objects.

An Egyptian mummy known as ‘Gebelein Man A’ has been on public display almost continuously since his discovery more than a century ago, but dark smudges on his arm drew little attention. The smudges turn out to be some of the oldest known tattoos.

Scrutiny of mummies at the British Museum in London revealed tattoos on both Gebelein Man A, who dates to roughly 3350–3020 bc, and an Egyptian mummy of similar age named Gebelein Woman. The man’s tattoos appear to depict a wild bull and a goat-like animal called a Barbary sheep, say Daniel Antoine, a researcher at the museum; Renée Friedman at the University of Oxford, UK; and their colleagues. The woman’s tattoos include one that seems to show an L-shaped ceremonial object.

The Alpine mummy named Ötzi the Iceman dates to the same time period and also has tattoos. But his are geometric designs, making the Gebelein mummies’ artwork the oldest known to depict animals and objects.