Currently reading : Medicinal Tattoos

Medicinal Tattoos

13 August 2013

Author : julia-silverman

In 1991, two German hikers stumbled upon a 5300 year old mummy nestled in the Ötzal Alps. The mummy, later extracted from the ice and dubbed the “Tyrolian Iceman,” sported over 50 simple charcoal tattoos, from lines on his wrists to hatching on his back and a cross on his knee. The purpose of these tattoos, however, remained mysterious until eight years later when Austrian researchers published a (somewhat disputed) paper noting the striking correspondence between the mummy’s tattoos and “trigger sites” in Eastern acupuncture. Radiological studies confirmed that the mummy had suffered from myriad deformities and illnesses during his life, including missing ribs, whipworm and arthrosis in his joints; many of his tattoos appeared in spots that were most afflicted by these illnesses, suggesting a therapeutic rather than aesthetic function.

Two lines on the wrist of the "Tyrolian Iceman"


Medicinal tattooing, however, extends far beyond the bounds of the Iceman’s life both geographically and temporally. The oldest tattoo, found on an Egyptian mummy, dates over 6000 years. And today, as researcher and tattoo enthusiast Lars Krutak notes, Kayan people in Borneo continue to tattoo sprained wrists, ankles, and knees to decrease swelling, and Kalinga people in the Philippines tattoo markings on their neck to cure goiter.


A Kayan ankle (Photo Lars Krutak via the Smithsonian)


To read more on the discovery of the Iceman: NBC News

For more on medicinal tattooing in general: Smithsonian Blog

The 1999 scientific paper on the Iceman’s tattoos. (I should note that while this paper is an interesting read, I don’t possess the expertise to determine how solid its claims are.)


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