World's Oldest Tattoos Found on 5,000-Year-Old Mummies from Egypt

S-shaped motifs on the on the upper arm of a mummy.
Infrared imaging showed tattoos on African mummies that rewrites the history of permanent markings on humans. Trustees of the British Museum

Scientists at the British Museum have uncovered the world's oldest tattoos.

Some of the world's oldest figurative tattoos have been discovered on two 5,000-year-old mummies from Africa.

Markings depicting a wild bull and a Barbary sheep were found on a male skeleton and a S-shaped motif was unearthed on the bicep and shoulder of a female body. Both are kept at the British Museum. 

The findings, published in the Journal of Archaeological Science rolls back evidence of tattooing by 1,000 years. It also dispels the belief that only women received tats in Predynastic Egypt, the era before the country's unification in 3,100 BC under a pharoah.

The markings on the male are likely associated with virility and status, according to researcher Daniel Antoine, who called the tattoos "quite extraordinary."

Both horned animals are frequently seen in predynastic Egyptian art. The S motifs on the woman were used in pottery decoration.

The mummies are from an era before hieroglyphs came into being. 

Their markings had gone undiscovered for years until Antoine began using infrared imaging on their skin. He hopes his findings will inspire other museums to inspect their collections.