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European Archiologists have unearthed implements used in tattooing during the Upper Paleolithic Period! (38,000 BC to 10,000 BC)

Tattooing is arguably one of the very first visual art forms. It probably originated around the same time folks started scratching out figures on rocks and dirt, and more than likely preceded actual paintings with dyes and such (for example cave paintings). More than likely the process was discovered purely by accident. Some dirt or ashes was introduced into an open wound, and the healed effect was an indelible and permanent marking. It probably didn't take long after the discovery for folks to begin tattooing each other for fun and excitement. There was nothing in the way of video games or soap opera's back then. More than likely it was quickly refined into the use of ashes with a sharp bone, shell or stick.


'Ítzi' , the Italian Ice man, returned to Italy from Austria with a full military escort, and great pomp and circumstance. Housed in a one million dollar mausoleum. This frozen human was found in the Austrian Alps, 300 feet inside the Italian border, and has been carbon-dated to 5,300 years ago. His is the oldest naturally preserved tattooed body known. He has a startling 57 tattoos, several of which appear to be for 'medicinal' treatment of arthritis in joints such as the ankles, knees and lower back. Next solid human evidence is the 'Mummy of Amunet' (Dynasty XI, Egypt, c. 4040 - 3994 years ago)Found in Egypt, at Thebes, Amunet was a priestess of Hathor (the Egyptian 'Goddess of Love'). All tattooed Egyptian mummies found to date (earlier authorities didn't see a need to disclose the fact of their being tattooed) are female. The location of the tattoos on the lower abdomen are thought to be linked to fertility, as in many other cultures. Next along the timeline are the Pazyryk Mummies of the Northern Eurasian region. These mummies, found in the High Altai Mountains of western and southern Siberia, have been dated around 2400 years old. The tattoos on their bodies are representative of a variety of real and mythical animals. Griffins and monsters are thought to perhaps have a magical significance, but some elements are believed to be purely esthetic in value. Seems things haven't changed much in twenty-four hundred years! Regardless of intentions, the tattoos are believed to reflect the bearers social status. Recently discovered 'Ice Mummies' high in the Peruvian Andes, exemplify the status of the art in 11th century South America, half way across the world! Evidence in the lesser form of non-human artefacts are none the less substantial, and from this same time period (3,000 years ago) We have, for example, in the Pacific, pottery shards from the Lapita culture which are approximately 3000 years old. The Lapita face exhibits dentate markings on the nose, cheeks and forehead, suggesting applied techniques of tattooing. The earliest evidence of tattooing in Japan comes from figurines called 'Dogu'. The majority of these figurines dating to 3000 years ago, displaying similar markings to the tattooed mouths found among the women of the Ainu culture. The world has been beautified and identified by tattoo for what seems like forever. The Greeks learned tattooing from the Persians. Tattooing is mentioned in accounts by Plato, Aristophanes, Julius Caesar and Herodotus. Roman docuentation of the Celts, and their tattoo's, is contained in this website under 'Ireland's Celtic Tradition'. The early Greeks not only tattooed themselves for decorative purposes, but also implemented the art for secret communications and identification. Spy's were identifiable by their markings, which also indicated their stature. The Romans were know to use tattooing to identify criminals and slaves. The Romans later adopted tattooing from the Greeks. In the 4th century, the first Christian emperor of Rome banned facial tattooing of slaves and prisoners. In 787, Pope Hadrian prohibited all forms of tattooing. Seems early Christianity had a problem with tattoo's. The Ainu people (the Indigenous people of Japan)of western Asia indicated social status through their indelible markings. Girls and married women were marked to indicate their standing in society were they married? Or ready for marriage? In Borneo the women were the tattooists, the way it has always been in their culture. It was also believed to be the Ainu who introduced the now deeply traditional rite to Japan, and even the isolated tribes in Alaska. Their style indicating origins from the Ainu people. Dayak warriors earned lifetime status in their community by having their hands tattooed, indicating they had taken a life. Kayan women adorned their arms in permanent lace-like designs. There is evidence that the Inca, Aztec and Mayan cultures also incorporated tattooing into their rites and ceremonies, as did the Polynesians. In Mexico and Central America, 16th century Spanish records of Mayan tattooing revealed the tattoos to be a sign of courage. We travel now to the South Pacific region. A region where the tattoo has it's place as a historic and respected tradition. The Polynesian tattoo is of great significance and importance in their culture, indicating family, tribe, social status and more. The process of being tattooed is one in which the whole community participates, almost in a festival style. The Facial Moko is a means of personal identification still being used today. 'Ta Moko' as it is properly referred to, is a visual history of that person's achievements, it also serves as a reminder to the bearer and those around them, of their responsibilities in life. Ta Moko is worn by both sexes. Applied to the buttocks and face of the men, and to the lips, chin and shoulders of women. Especially high social status warrants Ta Moko on the face. A women might put small markings over their faces or shoulders signifying someone close to them had died. Ta Moko has no set patterns, each version being specifically designed for the bearer. Facial Ta Moko's sigificance is dependent on its facial placement. The left side of the face relating to the father's history, the right side, the mother's. Originally, albatross bone was used to 'chisel' the Ta Moko into the bearer's skin. The pigmentations used were Carui gum and vegetable dyes, rendered into soot and mixed with oils. Every tribe used different styles and forms of pigment. Ta Moko has recently and rightfully enjoyed a resurgence among the native people's of New Zealand, the Maori.

In Samoan the word 'Tatau' translates to 'appropriate, fitting, balanced'. Tatau has different names in Samoan, depending on Gender. 'Pe'a', meaning 'flying fox', refers to the dark charcoal colour of the tattoo and is indicative of the male gender. It covers the area from the waist down to the knees. Each tattoo is uniquely designed for the bearer. The tattoo is always applied in specific order, the lumbar region (the small of the back where the Samoan mythical figures Taema and Tilafaiga were joined) always being tattooed first, the navel always being last. The navel design is of extreme importance and is called the 'Pute'. The tattoo is incomplete without the pute, and the bearer carries a sense of shame because he did not complete the ceremony.

'Malu' describes the female tattoo. The word translates to 'protected and sheltered'. Most of the design is purely ornamental. There are no specifics for the malu tattoo, however, the diamond shaped design at the rear of the knee region is always present. 'Taupou's', or village maiden's, have important ceremonial role's in their community. They are always tattooed from the knee up to the top of the leg and sometimes on the hands. Both the 'Pe'a' and the 'Malu' indicate a readiness for life, adulthood community service.

The Danes, Norse, and Saxons tattooed family identification and ceremonial markings during rites. In North America, early Jesuit accounts verify the widespread practice of tattooing among the Native Americans. Among the Chickasaw people, tattoos identified outstanding warriors. Up in Canada, Among the Iroquois of Ontario, elaborate tattoos indicated high social standing. In the far north-west of the America's, Inuit women had their chins tattooed to indicate marital status, and also tribal identity. In the 1700's, many French sailors returning from South Pacific voyages returned home with elaborate and exotic tattoos. In 1861, Maurice Berchon, a French Naval Surgeon, published a study on tattooing, and it's subsequent medical complications. As a result, the Navy and Army banned tattooing for those in active service. These types of rulings seemed to spread to other countries. However, when you are putting your life on the line for your country, and 'Freedom', this kind of personal restriction is not well received and military personelle world-wide tend to ignore such restrictive legislation. Although Pope Hadrian had banned tattooing in the late 700's, the practice still thrived in Britain well until after the Norman Invasion, in 1066. Tattooing all but disappeared from Western culture from the 12th to the 16th centuries, as far as the records show. While tattooing was diminishing in the west, it growing in the east, particularly in Japan, where it truly found itself appreciated as an artform. Collectors of tattooed skins would draw contract with individuals who would receive payment for their skin upon death. The Tokyo Museum of Natural Art has a collection of several hundred of these skins. Although the practice is now outlawed, rumours persist it is still practised. The Japanese body suit, a well known cultural icon worldwide, originated around 1700 out of protest. . Only royalty were allowed to wear ornate clothing, by laws enacted at that time, and as a result, middle class men adorned themselves with elaborate full body tattoos. This allowed the bearer the privilege of being 'well dressed' despite the legal restrictions! A fellow by the name of William Dampher is responsible bringing tattoo's home to the west, so to speak. After exploring the South Pacific as a sailor, he returned to London in 1691 with a fellow named Giolo, a heavily tattooed Polynesian of purported royal blood. He was all the rage in London for a spell. Despite earlier prejudicial enactments in the British Isles, tattooing began to flourish in the 19th century, and eventually became a strong tradition in the British Navy. In 1862, the Prince of Wales received his first tattoo - a Jerusalem cross - after visiting the Holy Land. In 1882, his sons, the Duke of Clarence and the Duke of York (later King George V) were tattooed by the Japanese master tattooist, Hori Chiyo. We were now at the onset of the modern resurgence of tattooing that has only really come to flower in the west this last century. Sadly, it is only in the last fifteen to twenty years that tattooing is once again garnering the recognition and respect the art deserves.

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For some informative science and history sites:

RETURN OF THE ICEMAN: NOVA informative interview regarding the great find in the Alps.
: NOVA Ice Mummies: Siberian Ice Maiden , excellent, insightful interview
NOVA* 'Claims for the remains', interesting commentary on study rights for ancient remains.

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