Tattoos of the Ancient World

In addition to the Egyptians, other cultures from the Ancient Near East practiced the art of tattooing. According to Robert Bianchi, the Ptolemies, the Maenads from Greek mythology, and the ancient Libyans practiced the art of tattooing.

Tattoos traveled from the Egyptians to the Greek, ancient Germans, ancient Britons, Gauls and Thracians. However, with the rise of Christianity in ancient Europe tattoos were basically forbidden in that area.

The practice then continued in the Middle East, Polynesia, and North America (Native Americans). Tattoos are not present in ancient cultures with dark skin color and in Asia, and did not formulate until much later.

Although the Egyptians are believed to be the first culture to have tattoos, the name is of Polynesian descent, and Polynesian tattoos are the most intricate and artistic of the Ancient world. Many Polynesians would continuously add tattoos on their body, until finally it was completely covered by the end of their lives. It is believed that these are the most advanced because they lived in a safe location, and did not involve themselves in excessive war. This gave them the time to design extremely intricate tattoos.

In addition to the Egyptians, the Incas, Mayas and Aztecs also had tattooed mummies. The Vikings tattooed family trees and tribal symbols on themselves. The Romans only tattooed their criminals and slaves as a way of punishing and torturing them.

Ancient Samoans used tattooing for no purpose other than fashion, and to show that they could bear pain. Their tattoos were usually on their lower body, both for men and women. Many of these tattoos would take months and years to create. The were applied by using a comb, dipping it in ink, and using the tipped end to puncture the skin.

The Maori's of New Zealand, however, focused their tattoos on their faces. Every man would tattoo his face with an individual design, it was one that fit the man's facial features. These were created using coal to cut the man's face, and then would be inserted into the cuts. This could take weeks or months, depending on the person's tolerance for pain. The swelling would be so intense that the man had to use a funnel to eat his food. Maori women would also tattoo their faces, but it was reserved mainly for their lips and mouth.

Many ancient civilizations used the technique of "scarification" in place of tattooing. Scarification is executed by tattooing the skin using an extremely hot device. This causes the skin to inflame, which creates a three dimensional effect. Many women used this to show men that they could handle pain, and therefore bear children. Men also found women with scarification extremely attractive.

Click here to see pictures of tattoos from the ancient world!
These statuettes are females with scarification on their face. This process made women more attractive to men, and showed that they could handle the pain of child bearing.