The oldest known tattoos belong to "Ötzi the Iceman," a 5,300-year-old mummy a pair of German hikers discovered in a glacier along the Austrian-Italian border in 1991, according to a paper slated to publish in the February 2016 edition of the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports.
Scholars have for years debated whether Ötzi was actually the oldest tattooed human, according to Smithsonian Science News, because scientists identified a tattoo of a pencil-thin mustache on a South American mummy from the Chinchurro region that they initially dated back to about 4000 B.C.
But new research has determined that the Chinchorro mummy was not as old as originally believed, and that Ötzi actually predates it by at least 500 years.
While researchers were examining the Chinchorro mummy’s radiocarbon dating, they uncovered the root of the mistake. They believe a sample of the mummy's lung tissue was dated improperly in the 1980s. This mistake was repeated in later studies, and eventually the mummy was determined to be about 4,000 years older than it actually was.
“I was surprised by the findings because in previous publications I brought attention to the tattooed Chinchorro mummy and its early date,” research associate Lars Krutak told Smithsonian Science News.
“To me this mummy was like an underdog versus the all-too-popular Iceman that everyone was writing and talking about," he continued. "But after reviewing the facts, we were compelled to publish the article as soon as possible to set the record straight and stem the tide of future work compounding the error.”
Researchers have known that Ötzi had a few dozen tattoos across his legs, back, torso and left wrist, but in January they discovered a previously unknown mark hidden in deeper layers of his dark-colored skin.
Ötzi has earned his title of the oldest known tattooed human, but the study's authors say he probably won't keep it for long. They used new techniques to identify Ötzi's markings -- which were found to be indicative of social and therapeutic practices that predate his existence -- that other researchers will be able to use to examine marks on future archeological finds.
Records from the ancient Greeks mention tattoos as early as the 5th century, according to Forbes. But examining the preserved human skin of mummies has revealed that the practice of tattooing dates back further than that.
“I hope this paper stimulates new research," Krutak said. "In turn, we may see the antiquity of tattooing being pushed further and further back in time, which is an exciting prospect.”
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