A Look at the Early History of The Art of Tattoo

Tattoos are pretty popular these days but they are definitely not a modern Adrenaline phenomenon.  Indeed, the tattoo has a very long and celebrated history across the world.  But do you know the origins of this term and practice?

TATTOO:  Linguistic Origins

The word tattoo, as we know it today, comes from the Tahitian word “tatu,” which means “to mark something.”  This also may be related to the ancient Polynesian word “tatao,” which means “to tap,” which could have contributed to the term that as we know it and use it today.  Of course, the reasons and methods for tattooing differ greatly, so it is not easy to say which words and terms are definitely related or influencing and which are definitely not related.

TATTOO:  A Natural History

Evidence suggests that tattooing can be traced back as far as the Neolithic era: roughly 5500 years ago.  Some scientists argue that it may have begun even earlier than this but we don’t have enough evidence to prove it. 

What we do have is a mummy found by two German tourists in the Otzal Alps, the range near Hauslabjoch on the Italian-Austrian border.  The two encountered this entombed body on September 19, 1991, noting that he must have frozen very shortly after his death, which left his body well preserved.  From this, they discovered he had nearly 5 dozen carbon tattoos.    This mummy has been determined to have died in 3300 BC, proving that the practice must have been around for at least a few generations before.

TATTOO:  A Recorded History

The first record of the art and practice of tattooing comes from, not surprisingly, ancient Egypt.  Wall paintings from the period prior to 2000 BC indicate tattooing as a part of ancient Egyptian life. Of course, as the culture spread outward, this art—among many others—spread along with it so that civilizations in Arabia, Crete, China, Greece, and Persia all evolved something similar.

The Greeks actually used tattooing as a means to communication and as identification among spies.  The markings showed their position and rank.  Also, the Roman Empire used tattooing as a means to identify criminals and slaves; in western Asia, tattoos became a means to show social status.  Similarly, tattooing spread in the West as Norse, Danish, and Saxon families all used this method to carry their family crests along with them.