Tattooing in Prehistorical Times

Tattooing is an artwork which is created indifferent parts of the body by injecting the ink or dues into the skin. Though tattoo is quite a rage these days among the people from all age groups from 15 year olds to 50 year olds, it has been prevalent since Neolithic Age. Traces of tattoos found in several mummified bodies, discovered recently, also substantiate the claims.

During the primitive Age, people used to sport tattoos on different parts of the body for healing or therapeutic purposes. It is believed that tattoos were engraved on the bodies of those suffering from arthritis or rheumatism for treating the diseases. Besides, tattoos were also made on the bodies for spiritual purposes.

Tattooing in Prehistorical Times

A mummified body dating back to 3300 B.C. with altogether 57 therapeutic tattoos was discovered in the Alps long ago, indicating the prevalence of tattoo in that era.

Several tattooed mummies were also recovered in Xingjian province of China. Three tattooed mummies, as old as 300 B.C., were discovered from Altai Mountains in the 20th century’s second half.

People belonging to many tribes in the Central and Northern parts of Europe used to get tattoos engraved on their bodies.

Tattoo Trends Prevalent in the Ancient World:

  1. Tattoos in China: People belonging to several ethnic minorities in China sported tattoos on their bodies. However, people belonging to the majority ethnic group Han Chinese did not appreciate this art as they believed that body was their parent’s gift and damaging the body was considered a huge offence. They generally linked tattoos with criminals, bandits and gangsters. From Zhou dynasty in 1045 B.C. to 256 B.C. to Qing dynasty (1644 to 1912), the tattoos were inscribed on the face of a convicted or slave. According to a legend, mother of the Song dynasty’s famous general, Yue Fei tattooed ‘jing zhong baog guo’ which meant “repay country with pure loyalty” on his back before he joined army.
  2. Tattoos in Egypt and India: Henna and Mehndi were used in ancient Egypt and India to make tattoos. Tattoos made by henna and mehndi were not permanent in nature and generally faded after sometime.
  3. Tattoos in the Philippines: Even before Hispanic colonization of the Philippines, tattoos were endorsed by the people belonging to various tribal groups. When the Spanish came to the Philippines, they saw tribal people belonging to the Visayas sporting tattoos on the whole bodies. As a result, they named these islands as “La Isla de Los Pintados” i.e. “The islands of the painted ones”.

In the Philippines islands, tattoos indicate the rank and achievements of the wearer. Some tribesmen also got tattoos engraved on their bodies as they were of the view that wearing tattoos on the body would have magical qualities. Tattoo’s styles and designs vary from one region to another and from one tribe to another in the Philippines islands. Both men and women in the islands used to get tattoos on their bodies.

  1. Tattoos in Indonesia: Tattooing has been very popular among various tribes in Indonesia, especially the Dayak people in Borne.
  2. Tattoos in Europe: Tribes in Germany and central and northern parts of Europe used to get heavy tattoos on their bodies. In the 10th century, people belonging to Scandinavian Rus tribe used to get tattoos on the whole bodies. However when Christianity began spreading in Europe, tattoos were legally banned in certain parts of Europe. In the Greek period, tattoos were engraved only on the slaves.
  3. Tattoos in Japan: Since the Paleolithic period, people in Japan have been getting tattoos engraved on their bodies for decorative and spiritual purposes. Different kinds of people got tattoos on their bodies for different reasons in different periods. Earlier manual workers, firemen and prostitutes only got tattoos indicating their status. From 1720 to 1870, tattoos were engraved on the criminals as part of the punishment. The number of rings on the arms of the criminal indicated the number of crimes committed by him. However, the Meji government stopped this practice and banned the tattoos. This led to segregation of the criminals who were not allowed to join the mainstream as they were looked down upon by the respectable society because of their visible tattoos. The segregation further forced them into criminal activities and led to formation of Japanese ‘Yakuza’.
  4. Tattoos in Middle East: In the Middle East countries, people used to cut themselves and rub the funeral ash of the beloved ones to pay respect to the dead which led to the formation of tattoos. These tattoos reminded them of the dead relatives.
  5. Tattoos in Samoa: People in Samoa Islands used to cover their legs with tattoos. In Samoa, people make the tattoos with their hands with the help of hand –made tools, a tradition which has been followed over 2000 years. The techniques and the style of tattooing in Samoa have remained the same since tattoos were first used there. In Samoa, if somebody is unable to bear the pain of piercing and left the tattoo unfinished, he / she is labeled as a coward and he / she along with family is looked down upon in  the society.
  6. Tattoos in Persia: Tattoos and body piercing have been prevalent in Persia for thousands of years. Stone carvings and statues belonging to the Archaemenid Empire indicate the tattoo trends.

Be it therapeutic, decorative, and spiritual or identification purposes, tattoos have been a part and parcel of life of people since the pre-historic period.

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