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A cross-shaped tattoo on Ötzi's knee.

Acupuncture for the Iceman: Did Ötzi Get Inked for Health?

Ötzi the iceman was discovered in the Oetz Valley, Austria, in 1991 by some German tourists. When this 5,300-year-old mummy was first found it was believed the frozen corpse belonged to a soldier who died during World War I or perhaps a mountaineer. But tests later confirmed a date of 3,300 BC – making Ötzi Europe's oldest natural human mummy. The remarkable preservation of Ötzi’s remains have made him an alluring specimen for researchers.

The mummy of Otzi, as it was found

The mummy of Otzi, as it was found (vaxzine / CC BY NC ND 2.0 )

Ötzi’s blood cells , DNA and modern relatives , diet and final meal , cause of death , possible sound of voice , illnesses during life, clothing, and his tattoos have all been analyzed. But here we’ll take a closer look at the tattoos found all over Ötzi’s body, which researchers believe may have been an early form of acupuncture.

Naturalistic reconstruction of Ötzi - South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology.

Naturalistic reconstruction of Ötzi - South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology. ( Public Domain )

50 or more tattoos have been identified across Ötzi’s body. Many are simple lines or crosses which were created by making small incisions that were later rubbed with charcoal. At first, it was believed the tattoos only held a decorative purpose, but closer analysis suggests they were created with therapy in mind – an ancient form of acupuncture?

Some of the tattoos found on Ötzi, a 5,300-year-old iceman found in the Italian Alps in 1991.

Some of the tattoos found on Ötzi, a 5,300-year-old iceman found in the Italian Alps in 1991. Credit: Marco Samadelli

As a spokesman for the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology explained,

“Radiological images of the tattooed areas show degenerative areas under the tattoos that could have caused pain. As the tattooing spots lie approximately over the acupuncture medians, it seems common opinion that they could have been use for that.”

The presence of tattoos on hardworking areas of the human body - ankles, wrists, knees, Achilles tendon, and lower back - further support the notion that the tattoos were used therapeutically to relieve ailments such as rheumatism. If true, this may be evidence for one of the earliest known examples of acupuncture; the practice didn’t emerge until at least 2,000 years later in Asia.

Two tattooed bands can be seen around Ötzi's wrist.

Two tattooed bands can be seen around Ötzi's wrist. ( radiolab.org)

The spokesman for the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology expressed surprise at this possibility as well, stating that if the tattoos were actually created for such a purpose, “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.”

Top image: A cross-shaped tattoo on Ötzi's knee. Source: radiolab.org

By April Holloway

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