Scientists discover new tattoos on 5,300-year-old Otzi the Iceman mummy

by 29lab 25-05-2023

Scientists have discovered four more tattooed lines on ‘Ötzi the Iceman’, a 5,300-year-old mummy, bringing the total number of tattoos to 61.  Researchers are still divided over whether the tattoos were purely decorative, had religious significance, or held a therapeutic purpose.

Ötzi the iceman, as he has been named, was discovered by German tourists in the Oetz Valley, Austria, in 1991.  He was originally believed to be the frozen corpse of a mountaineer or soldier who died during World War I. However, tests later confirmed the iceman dates back to 3,300 BC and most likely died from a blow to the back of the head. He is Europe’s oldest natural human mummy and, remarkably, his body contained the still intact blood cells, which resembled a modern sample of blood. They are the oldest blood cells ever identified. His body was so well-preserved that scientists were even able to determine that his last meal was red deer and herb bread, eaten with wheat bran, roots and fruit.

One of the more surprising discoveries about Ötzi, was the series of tattoos found all over his body. His body art consists of sets of parallel lines and crosses, which were made by making small incisions in the skin and then rubbing them with charcoal and herbs.

A cross-shaped tattoo on Ötzi's knee

A cross-shaped tattoo on Ötzi’s knee. (

It was long believed that Ötzi had around 50 tattoos on his body; however, some researchers suspected there may be others, no longer visible to the naked eye due to the darkening of his skin over time.

Live Science reports that scientists from the Institute for Mummies and the Iceman at the European Research Academy in Italy, used cameras with specialized lenses that capture different wavelengths of light, ranging from ultraviolet light to infrared light. Using this equipment, the researchers discovered a set of previously unknown tattoos, a set of lines, located on the lower side of Ötzi’s right ribcage, bringing the total number to 61.

The 61 lines that make up the tattoos on Ötzi, a 5,300-year-old iceman found in the Italian Alps in 1991.

The 61 lines that make up the tattoos on Ötzi, a 5,300-year-old iceman found in the Italian Alps in 1991. Credit: Marco Samadelli

Identifying the full array of tattoos on Ötzi is important for learning about why he may have had them.  Until fairly recently, it was believed that the tattoos were merely decorative, however, a 2013 study in the journal Inflammopharmacology revealed that the tattoos were found in all parts of the body that showed evidence of wear and tear, including his ankles, wrists, knees, Achilles tendon, and lower back, leading the researchers to suspect that the tattoos were used therapeutically to relieve ailments like rheumatism and arthritis. Furthermore, the tattooed areas were found to lie approximately over acupuncture medians. If the tattoos were indeed therapeutic, they may constitute the earliest evidence of acupuncture.

The new ribcage tattoo is not located on the iceman’s back or on a joint, but “on the other hand, he could have suffered from chest pain,” said Albert Zink, the study’s senior researcher, whose paper has been published in the Journal of Cultural Heritage.

A spokesman for the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology had said, in relation to the 2013 study, that if indeed the tattoos were created as 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.”