How Did Ötzi the Iceman Get His Tattoos? Archaeologists and Tattoo Artists Unravel the Mystery

Ötzi’s 61 markings were likely hand-poked with a sharp tool, such as a piece of animal bone or copper, a new study finds

Scientific examination of iceman
Ötzi the Iceman has 61 tattoos across his abdomen, lower back, lower legs and left wrist. South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology / EURAC / Samadelli / Staschitz

Archaeologists know a lot about Ötzi the Iceman, who died 5,300 years ago in the Tyrolean Alps between Italy and Austria. By examining his well-preserved corpse, which was discovered by hikers in 1991, they’ve been able to glean his height, weight and age, as well as what he ate for his last meal. They know how he died—likely from being shot in the back with an arrow—and they know that he was going bald.

But one big mystery remains: How did the Iceman get so many tattoos?

Ötzi’s body is covered in 61 tattoos. Most are in the shape of crosses and parallel black lines and inked across his lower back, lower legs and left wrist. But, so far, researchers haven’t been able to figure out how these markings were made.

One theory was that someone created small cuts on Ötzi’s skin, then rubbed some sort of pigment—possibly pulverized charcoal—into the incisions.

But now, the results of an unconventional experiment suggest the incision hypothesis may be wrong. Instead of cuts, researchers say someone used a piece of sharpened animal bone or a copper awl to hand-poke tiny holes in his skin.

To reach this conclusion, described last month in the European Journal of Archaeology, researchers teamed up with professional tattoo artists who specialize in traditional, non-electric techniques.

“Over the years, I’ve had numerous conversations with professional tattooists, and when you get talking about it and looking at the pictures, they say, ‘Oh, no, oh, no, those absolutely are not cut into the skin,’” says study co-author Aaron Deter-Wolf, a prehistoric archaeologist at the Tennessee Division of Archaeology, to CNN’s Katie Hunt. “But that hadn’t been shown in a scientifically sound setting.”

Danny Riday, a machine-free tattooist in Tamahere, New Zealand, agreed to tattoo one of his legs for an experiment, using different tools and techniques. This human canvas gave archaeologists something to compare with Ötzi’s skin.

Multiple images of dark lines on skin
Researchers compared Riday's tattoos (A–F) with Ötzi's tattoos (G). Deter-Wolf et al., European Journal of Archaeology 2024

Riday used tools made of animal bone, obsidian, copper and boar tusk, as well as a modern steel needle for comparison. He tested several techniques, including making incisions, hand-poking and tapping the tools into his skin. Riday used both commercial black tattoo ink, as well as a natural soot-based ink.

Over the next six months, the team kept tabs on the tattoos using a digital microscope. They recorded what the wounds looked like as they healed, as well as how the skin appeared once it healed completely.

“Every time a tattooing tool breaks the skin, it makes a small wound, and all wounds have distinctive traits that depend on how they were created,” Deter-Wolf tells ScienceAlert’s Michelle Starr. This part of the experiment was initially documented in a 2022 study.

By comparing this data with ultraviolet and high-resolution digital images of Ötzi’s tattoos, the team of archaeologists then deduced that puncturing was the most likely method used on the Iceman. Some traits of his tattoos, including their one- to three-millimeter width, rounded edges and stippling, suggest they were made with a sharp piece of bone or copper.

The researchers can’t definitively prove this idea. However, their study offers “extensive and plausible explanations” that Ötzi’s tattoos were hand-poked, says Marco Samadelli, a researcher at the Institute for Mummy Studies who was not involved in the project but has worked extensively with Ötzi’s remains, to Science News’ Bruce Bower.

A sharply pointed bone was found among Ötzi’s belongings, along with a bow and arrows, as well as herbs and plants that might have been used as medicine. In the future, researchers could test the pointed bone for signs of pigment or tattoo-related wear and tear.

In the meantime, researchers are still trying to unravel the significance or purpose of Ötzi’s tattoos. Particularly puzzling is the fact that they’re located in places that would’ve mostly been covered with clothes, which raises questions about whether they could have been intended for adornment or creative expression.

Another possibility is that the tattoos were meant to provide therapeutic benefits, similar to acupuncture treatments, because they were created on “hard-working areas” of the body, as Ancient Origins’ April Holloway wrote in 2017.

Researchers do suspect Ötzi suffered from various ailments, including gallstones, parasites and gum disease, so tattoos as a form of pain relief or therapy might make sense. But it’s also possible the tattoos could’ve served multiple purposes simultaneously.

“We don’t disagree with the idea that they could have been therapeutic,” Deter-Wolf tells CNN. “All of it’s on the table. Just because something has given us a therapeutic treatment doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have culturally symbolic value.”

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