According to an upcoming study published in the Journal of Archaeological Science, the 57 tattoos on Ötzi’s body were made from fireplace soot that contained glittering and colorful precious stone crystals. The findings suggest how prehistoric people were tattooed, and it also supports prior research that his tattoos were associated with acupuncture treatments.
Using optical microscopy and various powerful electron microscopy techniques, Pabst, a professor in the Institute of Cell Biology at the Medical University of Graz, and her colleagues analyzed several of Otzi’s tattoos. Tattoos chosen for this study consist of line markings, as well as a distinctive cross-shaped tattoo on the iceman’s right knee. Magnification of the skin designs revealed the tattoos consisted of soot, likely raked out of a fireplace, along with different silicate crystals, such as quartz and almandine, a type of purple garnet.
It is beleived that these crystals probably fell off stones in the fireplace and mixed into the soot, rather than being purposely used to add sparkle to the tattoo. Obviously, this is debatable. Supporting evidence that the tattoos were not just for aesthetic function include the fact that the cross-shaped tattoo on his knee, and another one on his left ankle, lay over Chinese acupuncture trigger points. Prior research shows Ötzi did suffer from a variety of ailments like degeneration of the hip, knee and ankle that might have benefited from acupuncture.
It was believed that the earliest acupuncture took place in China around 3,000 years ago. Since the 5,300 year old iceman is much older, the researcher and her colleagues now think this technique may have been independently discovered by many different prehistoric European and Asian cultures.
It’s also still possible that tattooing and acupuncture originated in East Asia, with the knowledge of this practice spreading to the Alps region well before the iceman’s lifetime.
Frank Bahr, president of the German Academy of Acupuncture, first made the tattoo-acupuncture connection on the iceman after studying a drawing of the tattoos and their placement on Ötzi’s body.
Bahr told Discovery News, “The most interesting thing about the whole iceman story is that even today I would treat a patient with about 90 percent of the same points as the tattoos on the iceman, if this patient were to have the same diseases.” (summarized from http://dsc.discovery.com/news/2009/07/17/iceman-tattoos.html)
Anthropology.net has and article about Ötzi’s tattoos and it includes more information on ancient tattooing practices and the ‘Cherchen Man’ mummy found in China. The post makes an interesting point about the Tarim Basin in China (based on DNA evidence) may have been a cultural crossroads in ancient times where ideas and technologies could have been exchanged. This could very well be how ideas about acupuncture and tattooing travelled from east to west, and visa versa.