The discovery of picture tattoos on the upper arms of two ancient Egyptian mummies is changing the way we interpret body art.
The inkings pre-date previous evidence for tattooing in Africa by 1,000 years.
Older tattoos do exist, but this is the first time figurative body art has been found, rather than geometric patterns.
Lines and S-shaped symbols were found on the upper arm and shoulder of “Gebelein Woman” – named after the Egyptian town where it was found 100 years ago.
Images of a wild bull, a Barbary sheep (a wild African species of sheep that looks a lot like a goat) were found on the upper arm of “Gebelein Man”.
They would have lived in Gebelein, around 24m (40km) south of modern-day Luxor, between 3,351 and 3,017 BC, in the Predynastic Period before Egypt was unified by the first Pharaoh.
British Museum researchers say the female’s tattoos may have denoted status, bravery or magical knowledge, while the male’s were likely symbols of virility and strength.
The prominent position of the inkings shows that they were intended to be highly visible, contradicting the earlier belief that tattooing in Egypt was only performed on women.
Doctor Daniel Antoine, curator of physical anthropology at the British Museum said: “She has a crooked stave on the upper part of her arm and on her shoulders she has a series of ‘S’ (marks) and we have parallels for those in the iconography of predynastic art (before about 3,000 BC).
“We think the curved line represents a stave – a crooked stave that’s often depicted in ceremonial scenes and it maybe represents a special status but also they’re often depicting ritual scenes.”
The world’s earliest known tattoos were found on a on a mummified corpse known as Oetzi, who had 61 geometric designs spread across his body, organised into 19 groups.
The iceman was found well-preserved in the Italian Alps back in 1991, and would have lived around 5,300 years ago.