Unluckily, it’s not known where the origin of the tattooing and tattoo art is from, as the historical and archaeological records of most forms of body art are incomplete. Even though the skeletal material may be perceived for tens of thousands of years in fossilized form, human skin can survive only where intentional or accidental mummification took place. Given the simple technology that is required and the widespread evidence of tattooing in far-flung places, the practice has probably developed independently, many times over, in certain different locations, since time immemorial. We also know that, in some regions of the world, it spread among peoples that were near one another.
The earliest evidence of the origin of tattooing is also one of the most ambiguous. Artifacts recovered from archaeological sites, dating from the Upper Paleolithic era (38,000 to 10,000 B.C.E.) in Europe, have been interpreted as puncturing tools and pigment reservoirs. The sharp bone needles which may have been used to puncture skin could have served some other functions too, such as general-purpose awls.
Clay and stone figurines with some engraved designs which may represent the origin of tattooing have been found in association with such bone tools. It could also probably be the case that the bone tools were used in the modeling of clay figurines. However, given the artistic elaboration and achievement, which is a hallmark of the Paleolithic era, as well as the ancient origin of tattooing in many parts all over the world, it is not unreasonable to speculate that the Paleolithic people practiced tattooing.
The earliest concrete evidence of the origin of tattooing is provided by the tattooed mummies, and these have been found in different regions in the world, from Nubia to Peru. Several of the most remarkable of these tattooed people have become famous not just for their tattoos but also for the exceptional circumstances of their discovery.
Perhaps, the most well-known from these the Bronze Age man that has come to be known as “Otzi,” named for the glacial region in the Alps where he was also discovered. Dating for about 3300 B.C.E., his skin bore is clear evidence of dark blue tattoos in certain locations: groups of parallel lines near the lumbar area of the spine and ankles, as well as a cross inside the knee.
The purpose of these marks is still not clear, but the suggestions are that they may have served as ethnic markers or identifiers and also that they may have also served as therapy for maladies that left traces on his bones. From the Twenty-first Dynasty of Egypt comes a woman that is named Amunet, a priestess of the goddess Hathor at Thebes, who was also tattooed with parallel lines of dots. Some of those tattoos appear on the upper arms, but most of them appear on the abdomen, incurved or in elliptical lines below the navel – a design that has been considered as sexual.
Maybe some of the most spectacular tattooed mummies come from the Iron Age of Siberia, from a culture which is known as the Pazyryk, which is a group of nomadic horsemen, hunters, as well as warriors that lived in this steppe region from the sixth to the second centuries B.C.E. Particularly, a man that has been characterized as a chief, accompanied by sumptuous grave goods, was elaborate, as well as profusely tattooed with several fantastic animals and also some realistic ones which included rams, deer, and fish.
However, there were some circular tattoos along his spine, which were strangely reminiscent of those of Otzi and may have been therapeutic. Another similar but separate burial of a young woman of this culture has been discovered on the Siberian plateau. Some ornate items of great craftsmanship likewise accompanied her, and her arms were also tattooed with similar types of designs. The variety in these several early examples hints at the multiple tattoo images that are found nowadays.
The aims of the tattoos, even though they are still unknown, are likely different, and at least some of them are highly charged symbolically. While the earliest tattoos which were preserved on human skin are abstract designs that are composed of sequences of dots and lines, the earliest representational images use animals. Probably, it is not a coincidence that animal tattoos are one of the most popular types of tattoos that are done in the last years. Regarding some recent evidence, we can trace the development of tattoo in nearly all of the regions around the world. Particularly, one of the earliest, as well as the most memorable encounters of Western culture with the tattoo, took place in Polynesia.
The New Tattoo Age
The year when the word “tattoo” entered into English usage is 1777, referring to the inked images on the skin, and it was put into the dictionary. From the records of the 1769 expedition of Captain James Cook to the South Pacific, it is known that there was a Tahitian word tatau, which meant “to mark.” But, the actual word “tattoo” existed before Captain Cook and his voyages, for about 150 years before. In one interesting coincidence, the earlier meaning of the word was “a rapid rhythmic rapping,” and the term has been used by the military personnel when they referred to the call sounded before Taps. This coincidence arises from the fact that the sound that was made by tattooing in Tahiti was, in fact, some kind of rapid tapping, as the set of needles, which looked like a small rake, which was hit with a stick to drive ink under the person’s skin. Even though Tahitians used the word tatau and Captain Cook wrote “tattaw,” it may be that he, together with his crew, eventually substituted a near sound-alike word from their background. Since the era of early sea exploration voyages, the tattooing practice in Polynesia fascinated a lot of people in the West and at other places as well.
Many, if not most, of the island groups of the South Pacific, practiced tattooing. For example, in Hawaii, the Marquesas Islands, Samoa, Borneo, New Zealand, the Marshall Islands, as well as Tahiti, Melanesia, Micronesia, Rapa Nui, Fiji, Tonga and somewhere else, the practice of tattooing has reached some extraordinary heights of achievements, and have also shared many features across these different cultures. As the earliest evidence shows above, the artifacts in Polynesia include both decorated human figures, as well as the origin of the tattoo tools, which dated to ca. 1000 B.C.E.
Nowadays, in Samoa, for instance, where tattoo practices have maintained to continue unbroken by the imposition of European culture, the striking waist-to-knee tattoo of the men is still done traditionally, sometimes with traditional tools. The process remains a harrowing one as it is full of ritual importance and conferring both beauty and the outward sign of maturity. In the South Pacific as well, Borneo is known for the Dayak rosette tattoo, which is typically done at the front of the shoulder. Among the Dayak, there are some tattoos that may have been linked with headhunting, as well as some other matters of spiritual importance. But, probably the most well-known origin of tattooing in Polynesia is from New Zealand.
The Maori tattooing has become famous for the moko, which is an actual carving of the skin that is achieved with the fine chisels before applying pigment. It is undoubtedly an exceedingly painful, as well as a lengthy process, and it is all the more remarkable as it is placed primarily on the face. The elaborate, symmetric, and sometimes very full treatments of the face, especially for a male person, are some of the most recognized and famous tattoo types around the globe. They are composed of curved lines, spirals, as well as some other designs, and there was much meaning embedded in moko, only some of which is understood in today’s world. As in some other corners of the world, much of what was symbolized with Polynesian tattoos are both lost to time, as well as to the clash of different cultures and the oversight of intolerant political and religious systems. Traditional tattooing around the globe has repeatedly been the victim of such forces, seemingly without any exception.
When early explorers and sailors absorbed this part of the culture of Polynesia and brought tattooed natives and their tattoos back together with them, the South Pacific forever changed the modern West. Europe, of course, was not a stranger either to the early use of the tattoos, even though they have faded from memory by the time of these sea adventures. Constantine I, who was the first Roman emperor to profess Christianity, banned tattooing on the face in the early fourth century, as he considered that it could be interpreted as a contamination of the image of God. There was also banned in North Europe, which happened at the Council of Calcuth in C.E. 787, and without any doubt, tattoos were discouraged in many different small ways throughout the growing Christian world. The Danes, Norse, Saxons, as well as Gauls and Teutons all, had some traditions of tattooing, which focused on family and tribal symbols.
In the Mediterranean region, tattooing was practiced in Greece. However, in these societies, the tattooing origin has been associated with barbarians, and tattoos were used for identifying slaves, criminals, as well as mercenaries and also occasionally used as punishment. The Latin word which was used for a tattoo is “stigma.”
However, all around the world, particularly in the Orient, in some places like the Philippines, Burma, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, China, as well as Japan, the origin of the tattoo as an art, as well as spiritual endeavor was pursued. In different parts of Southeast Asia, tattoos are very much related to religion. Thailand, for instance, is noted for the practice of Buddhist monks giving and receiving tattoos, together with some prayers and offerings.
In many of these areas, as a general rule, tattoos serve a similar aim, which is that of protection. The symbols include some ancient designs which are drawn warding from calligraphy, numerology, the world of natural animals, as well as that of the mystical origin like dragons. The Ainu of western Asia and northern Japan, for example, are known for tattoos, which were done around the lips, to exaggerate their size. Still, they also practiced tattoos on the cheeks, forehead, and eyebrows. They had many purposes, but they primarily symbolized virtue, as well as purity, while they also served some cosmetic purposes and signaling sexual maturity. Tattooing in China was received as a punishment, and during that period, the same was applied for Japan, despite the previous prehistoric use. Lately, even though tattooing in Japan is raised to a lofty level of artistry, it was spurred on once again by the influence of China.
The next level in tattoo history is starting its bloom at the beginning of the twentieth century and getting to its climax around 80-90 years later. This is the period that we can easily say that its a dawn of the modern era of tattooing and its growing to this very day to a proportion not imaginable just 50 years ago.