For a long time, the earliest known examples of people with tattoos were mummies of female Egyptians from around 2,000 BC; however, in 1991, the frozen body of the “Iceman” was discovered near Austria. Iceman had a total of 58 tattoos. Very little is known about how exactly he was inked, but there has been a lot of educated guessing on the subject. In those guesses, we gain insight into the very first tattoo technique known to man.
According to Journal of Archeological Science author Maria Anna Pabst, the oldest tattoo technique known to man—that used by the ancient tattooist who inked the Iceman—was very similar to that of other prehistoric cultures: using a sharpened, hard object, such as a thorn or bone, to puncture holes in the skin. Once the wounds were created, soot was rubbed into them, and then the wounds were allowed to heal over without removing the residue. The result was instantly recognizable to tattooist even 5,000 years later: a tattoo.
The origins of tattooing can probably be traced, like so many innovations, to an accident: someone cutting himself on a sharp rock in front of a fire, rubbing the wound and discovering a week or two later that instead of a scar, he had a colored line—a tattoo.
Lacking inks, our tattooing forefathers who inked Iceman used soot; other ancient cultures used natural pigments from dried plants and flowers. In addition to the carbon used on Iceman, researchers also found tiny crystals of quartz and almandine in the tattooed portions of his flesh. The crystals were thought to be accidental byproducts of the soot, and not added intentionally, but the appearance of the tattoos, in general, was considered to be a dark blue color—as was the case in many prehistoric cultures (although the Inuit may have been able to tattoo using a yellow pigment).
The designs, such as they were, did not resemble animals or geographic features and were unlikely to be written the language. They were, instead, simple vertical lines and dots. One current theory holds that they relate to acupunctural techniques.
It so happens that the locations of several of his tattoos coincide with Chinese acupuncture “trigger points,” or places which, when appropriate pressure is applied, can relieve pain and suffering. This suggests that the earliest form of tattooing known to man may have been related to the acupuncture process. Interestingly, the Iceman had several chronic conditions and the trigger points on which the ancient tattooist/acupuncturist focused to coincide with modern acupuncture treatment options for those conditions. In other words, acupuncture may not have changed all that much over 5,000 years—unlike tattooing.
While tracing its origins are almost impossible, the art of tattooing has been with us for millennia—almost, it seems, since man discovered fire.