Ötzi’s Tattoos – Medicine in the Copper Age

Ötzi Reconstruction (© South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology - www.iceman.it)

Ötzi Reconstruction
(© South Tyrol Museum
of Archaeology
– www.iceman.it)

Ötzi the Iceman died between 3500 – 3100 BC in the Tyrol region of the Italian Alps. Ice quickly covered him and preserved his body until German hikers discovered it in 1991. Ötzi was found with his clothing, tools, and weapons – a snapshot of Copper Age life and a rare gift to archaeologists.

He was also found with almost 50 tattoos.

Archaeologists had never seen tattoos from the Copper Age before. Body tattoos were known to exist in ancient times, but the only evidence of that work is contained on figurines and wall carvings, which might or might not be accurate. Ötzi’s skin was a direct record from the past, although the information it contained was unpretentious: simple lines and crosses on his ankles, wrists, knees, lower back and Achilles tendon. These wouldn’t be the designs or sites to pick if his purpose was only body decoration. Many scientists now believe, however, that his markings weren’t art at all, but systematic healing therapies.

Tattoos on Ötzi's Back

Tattoos on Ötzi’s back

The Iceman lived a hard life. Forensic examinations of his body showed that Ötzi was about 46 at the time of his death. He had arthritis in his hip joints, knee joints, ankles and lower spine. Charcoal found in his colon and the remains of a plant remedy (Piptoporusbetulinus) in his belongings, also indicated that he suffered from abdominal and intestinal problems.

Scientific curiosity about the purpose of the tattoos was raised by their locations at high wear areas of the body. One medical study went a step further by noting that Ötzi’s tattoo sites were strikingly close to classical acupuncture points. The objective of acupuncture is to balance the energy that affects the organs, inflammation processes, and pain by applying needles or heat at prescribed meridians locations that correspond to an organ or organ system. Some of these meridians are located at a distance from the organ(s) they affect.

Ötzi's Tattoo sites (CC 2.0)

Ötzi’s tattoo sites (CC 2.0)

Acupuncture points are scaled to individual body dimensions by establishing a unit measure, the cun, based on a fraction of bone (femur, tibia, or radius)length. Researchers calculated the cun for Ötzi, determined the corresponding acupuncture points, and compared them to his tattoo locations. Independent reviews by three acupuncture societies showed that most tattoos were either on or extremely close to these points. Not all of the Iceman’s tattoos were accurately positioned according to acupuncture maps, but after 5000 years in the ice, the alignments were impressive.

Interestingly, 9 of his 15 tattoo groups were located on the urinary bladder meridian, which is related to back pain. One of these meridian points is actually on the ankle – right where Ötzi had a tattoo. Other tattoos were located on acupuncture meridians used to treat (you guessed it) abdominal disorders.

The pattern of markings reflected a purposeful strategy. “The fact that not randomly selected points, but rather corresponding groups of points were marked by tattoos seems especially intriguing,” the researchers noted in their paper. “From an acupuncturist’s viewpoint, the combination of points selected represents a meaningful therapeutic regimen.”

A widespread knowledge
Other ancient societies may also have practiced some form of acupuncture through body tattoos. A 1000 year old mummy of an Andean woman, for example, was decorated with tattoos and, while researchers acknowledged that most of them could have ceremonial or spiritual meanings, they noted that 12 circle markings around her neck were close to known acupuncture points still used today to relieve neck pain. Similar non-ornamental tattoos have been found on mummies from Siberia and South America.

So far, there’s only one Ötzi. Without other remains to compare with him, science can’t settle on the therapeutic tattoo explanation with certainty. Nevertheless, the tattoos and their locations are tantalizing hints to the sophistication of ancient medical practices and many people are convinced by what the Iceman has shown them. A spokesman for the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology (Ötzi’s “home”) stated in an interview that “It seems common opinion that the Iceman tattoos are not ornamental but therapeutic tattoos for pain relief.” The spokesman added that if the tattoos were, in fact, a form of acupuncture, “people of the Iceman’s times would have known not only about nature around them, but also about the human body and its reactions – I think this is remarkable.”

We believe that acupuncture originated in Asia more than 2,000 years ago. Ötzi may be showing us, however, that the same medical ideas could have been around in Eurasia as much as 3000 years earlier. The effects of those ideas may be woven through many of our practices today.

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