In the 1970s, hunters stumbled upon eight 500-year-old carcasses preserved by arctic climates near Kilakitsok, an abandoned Inuit settlement in northwestern Greenland. Later, when scientists photographed the mummies with infrared film, they made an interesting discovery: Five out of six women had delicate lines, dots, and arches tattooed on their faces.
For thousands of years, tattoos were more than just body decorations for the Inuit and other indigenous cultures. They served as symbols of belonging, depicted the rituals of a coming age, transmitted spiritual beliefs or conferred powers that could be invoked at birth or hunting. Yet around the 17th century, missionaries and colonists with the intention of “civilizing” indigenous peoples banned tattooing in all but the most remote communities.
The practice disappeared so completely in Greenland that Maya Sialuk Jacobsen, who spent her childhood there, worked as a Western-style tattoo artist for a decade before her Inuit ancestors were also tattooists of a very different nature. .
Today, Ms Sialuk Jacobsen uses historical documents, artifacts and Kilakitsok mummies – many of which are now on display at the museum. Greenland National Museum – To research traditional Inuit tattoo designs. She then hands or stitches patterns onto the faces and bodies of Inuit women, and sometimes men, to help them connect with their ancestors and reclaim a part of their culture.
“I take great pride in tattooing a woman,” she said. “When she meets her ancestors in the next world, it will be like looking in a mirror.”
Without the physical records left by ancient tattooing, modern practitioners such as Ms Sialuk Jacobsen would have little evidence to guide their work. Fortunately, as more indigenous tattooists around the world have revived lost traditions, a small group of archaeologists are tracing tattooing through time and space, uncovering new examples of its role in historical and prehistoric societies. . Scientists and artists are showing together that the urge to ink our bodies is deeply rooted in the human psyche, which has spread across the globe and speaking for centuries.
put the needle on the record
Until recently, large-scale tattooing was neglected by Western archaeologists. Due to the indifference of these scientists, instruments designed to tap, poke, stitch, or cut human skin were listed as sewing needles or awls, while tattooed mummies were “more likely than scientific specimens”. were regarded as objects of attraction,” said Aaron Ditter-Wolf, a prehistoric archaeologist in the Tennessee Division of Archeology and a leading researcher in the archeology of tattooing.
Even when a 5,300 year old body tzi the iceman Recovered from the Italian Alps in 1991, with visible tattoos, some news reports at the time suggested that the scars were evidence that Otzi “probably was a criminal,” said Mr. Dieter-Wulf. “It was very biased.”
But as tattooing has become more mainstream in Western culture, Mr. Ditter-Wolf and other scientists have begun to examine preserved tattoos and artifacts to find out more about how past people lived and what they believed.
a 2019 Probe For example, in tzi’s 61 Tattoos, the Copper Age paints a picture of life in Europe. The dots and dashes on the mummy’s skin correspond to common acupuncture points, suggesting that people had a sophisticated understanding of the human body and may have used tattoos to alleviate physical ailments such as joint pain. In Egypt, Anne Austin, an archaeologist at the University of Missouri-St. louis got it dozens of tattoos On female mummies, including hieroglyphs, suggesting that the tattoos were associated with goddess worship and healing. This interpretation challenges the theories of 20th-century male scholars that female tattoos were merely erotic decoration or were reserved for prostitutes.
The scientific study of tattooed mummies also inspires physicians such as Elle Festin, a tattoo artist of Filipino heritage living in California. As a co-founder of Mark of the Four Waves, a global community Of the nearly 500 members of the Filipino diaspora united through tattooing, Mr. Festin has spent more than two decades studying Filipino tribal tattoos and helping those living outside the Philippines reconnect with their homeland . one of their sources “Fire Mummy” – People of the Ibloi and Kankanye tribes whose tattooed bodies were protected by slow-burning fire centuries ago.
If the client is a descendant of a tribe that created fire mummies, Mr. Festin will use the mummies tattoos as a framework for designing their own tattoos. (He and other tattooists say that only people with ancestral ties to a culture should get tattoos from that culture.) So far, 20 people have received Fire Mummy tattoos.
For other clients, Mr. Festin tends to be more creative, embracing age-old patterns for modern living. For a pilot, he says, “I would put a mountain below, a frigate bird on top of that, and lightning and wind patterns around it.”
Yet while mummies offer the most conclusive evidence of how and where past people inked their bodies, they are relatively rare in the archaeological record. More common – and thus more helpful to scientists tracking the footprint of a tattoo – are artifacts such as tattoo needles made from bone, shell, cactus spine or other material.
To show that such tools were used for tattooing rather than sewing leather or clothing, archaeologists such as Mr. Dieter-Wolf replicated the tools, using them to tattoo pig skin or on their own bodies. done, then examining the replicas under a high powered microscope. If the tiny wear patterns from repeated piercings match those of the original tools, archaeologists can conclude that the original artifacts were actually used for tattooing.
Through such painstaking experiments, Mr. Ditter-Wolf and his colleagues are pushing back the time of tattooing in North America. In 2019, Mr. Ditter-Wolf was the author of a study showing that the ancestors of modern Puebloan peoples were tattoo with cactus spine About 2,000 years ago in what is now the American Southwest. this year he published a search Showing people tattooing with needles made from turkey bones in Tennessee about 3,500 years ago.
Dion Kazas, a Hungarian, Metis, and Nalaka’Pamax tattoo practitioner and scholar in Nova Scotia, is learning how to create your own bone tattoo needle From Mr. Ditter-Wolf and Keon Nunes, a Hawaiian tattoo artist. Their goal, he said, is “to go back to that ancestral technique; to feel what our ancestors used to do.” Because few examples of Nalaca’Pamax tattooing remain, Mr. Use designs from rock art. Research from other cultures shows that tattoo designs often imitate the patterns of other artworks.
For Mr. Kazas and others, tattooing is not just a way to revive an indigenous language silenced by colonialism. It also has the power to heal the wounds of the past and strengthen indigenous communities for the future.
“The work our tattoos are doing to heal us is a different kind of work than our ancestors did,” Mr. Kazus said. “It’s a form of medicine, to get people to look their hands down and understand that they are one family, one community, one connected to the earth.”
ink back from the ledge
Although people from many cultures have recovered their tattoo heritage over the past two decades, there are others who have fully colonized and assimilated them. As scientists pay more attention to tattooing, however, their work may bring more lost traditions to light.
Mr. Dieter-Wolf hopes that archaeologists in other parts of the world will begin identifying tattoo artifacts using the method he and other North American scientists have pioneered, and push back its footprint even further. He also takes care of a Online, open-source database The tattooed mummies are intended to correct popular misinformation and illustrate the geographic spread of such specimens. The list includes mummies from 70 archaeological sites in 15 countries, including Sudan, Peru, Egypt, Russia and China – but Mr Dieter-Wolf hopes this will evolve as infrared imaging and other techniques add more ink to existing mummies. will uncover.
Back in Greenland, Ms Sialuk Jacobsen hopes the Kilakitsok mummies have even more secrets. She is encouraging museum directors to examine other parts of the mummies’ bodies, such as their thighs, with infrared imaging. Inuit women in other parts of the Arctic receive thigh tattoos as part of birthing rituals, but historical images show thigh tattoos on Greenlandic women, yet there is no solid evidence.
If Kilkitsok mummies have thigh tattoos, Ms Sialuk Jacobsen may one day copy the patterns on women in the Kilkitsok region, drawing a line between generations of the past and generations to come.
“Our tattoos are so selfless,” she said. They are not only for the woman receiving them, but also for their grandmother, their children, and their entire community.