The English word tattoo,  is derived from the Polynesian word tatau or tatu, however black people have been recognizing their bodies with tattoos ,on every single continent, for tens of thousands of years. Not to be confused with scarification, which involves a formation of cutting your skin, etched, burned or branded into a design to create a beautiful designed tattoo-like scar. Scarification has traces in West Africa, quite possible due to newer technology, the Egyptians would invent the concept of tattooing.

In Ancient Egypt, these designs served several aspirations, such as being amulets, statuses symbols, declarations of love, signs of religious beliefs, and forms of punishment

Egypt’s birthdate has always been unknown, tracing an origin to tattoos, would go back at least 10,000 years when the Sphinx was originally built. The oldest known tattoos found by modern man, belonged to the mummy of Amunet, a priestess of the goddess Hathor.  The designs found on her mummified body, was thought to be symbols of fertility and revival. No male mummies in Egypt have been found with tattoos.

If men did wear tattoos, the tats symbolized women. Neith, a brutal goddess who led soldiers into battle, were also found on men. Very early tattoos portraying Bes, the god of sex and overseer of orgies have also been found on female mummies from Nubia, dating back to 400 BC. Egyptian women had a remedial role and functioned as a permanent form of amulet, during pregnancy and birth. Tattoos found in tombs , and on small female statues,  have small figures of the dwarf god Bes on the thigh area.

America’s connection, to the early stages of tattooing have been learned from the Ancient Greeks, only after they invaded Ancient Egypt, did they learn the practice of tattooing. With the newfound knowledge, the Greeks used tats to mark slaves and criminals so they could be identified if they tried to escape. The Ancient Romans, would learn from the Greeks, on how to  expand on this, by marking their runaway slaves with the letters “FGV” AKA (fugitivus). This learned behavior was also duplicated in America during the slavery era, slave owners considered blacks fugitives, and would use hot branding iron, to leave human fugitive tattoos. So that rebels and the fighters, could be identified.

Tattoos were introduced to Ethiopia in the 4th Century, by the Romans, when Christianity spread to Africa. Children as young as 5 years old, mostly female, were tattooed with crosses, sun patterns or other religious and cultural symbols on their hands, necks or foreheads, which is still Ethiopian culture, today. In northern Ethiopia, these neck and facial tattoos called nikisat. The Karo people of Ethiopia are special as well, men scar their chests to represent killing enemies from other tribes, women with scarred torsos and chests are considered sexy and attractive. 

Tattoo’s also have their origin in West Africa. The Adinkra symbols, created by the Akan people of Ghana, and the Gyaman of Cote d’Ivoire in West Africa have become popular in some parts of the West. In the past, a woman or man would have scarification marks that will distinguish her/him from anyone else, tell her/his rank in society, family, clan, and tribe, and symbolize her beauty or strength. In some African tribes, it was like wearing your identity card on your face. Elite African women, from West Cameroon, sport tremendously beautiful and intricate marks. The sculpted face of Queen Idia of Benin Kingdom, sports two marks on her forehead.

Tattooing was not only practiced among Africans. Many pre-Colombian tribes located in the west regions of South America, have the mummified remains of certain social elites , who has been decorated with tattoos. Anthropologists discovered a 1000 year old female mummy in the Chiribaya Alta desert in Southern Peru. Her preserved skin still contained black decorative patterns and geometric shapes, her tattoos symbolizing animals such as birds and reptiles.

Not only in South America, and Africa was tattoos important, but also Asia. Tattoos were like  body ornaments for the pre-Hispanic Filipinos. These were also sported as war “medals.” The more tattoos, the more impressive was a man’s war record. The Filipinos from the Visayas Islands were the most tattooed, which was why early Spanish writers referred to them as Pintados or painted people. The writers referred to their Islands as Islas del Pintados or Islands of the Painted People.

Of course let’s not forget North American tattoo history. The natives were rocking tattoos thousands of years before the first pilgrim pulled up in Virginia. Early Native American tattoos , were created ,by scratching or pricking the skin with sharpened bones, branches, or needles and then rubbing soot or crushed minerals into the wound.

While warriors’ tattoos were often featured not only on their bodies, but on the weapons they carried. The Karankawa Tribe was a heavily tattooed, pierced, and painted nomadic people. They made a strong impression on the Europeans who wrote of encounters. The men were strikingly tall, described as between six and seven feet. They were heavily tattooed, and wore shell ornaments. 

Visitors to the historical society can also see a 1706 pictograph by a Seneca trader that shows his distinctive serpent and bird tattoos, which were his personal signature. According to information presented in the exhibit, after the arrival of Europeans, the Iroquois, often “signed” documents by drawing their unique tattoos.

When Native Americans went into battle, many men from the winning tribes would often receive a tattoo signifying their conquest and victory. Different ethnic groups were known by their Native American tattoos. There were different markings to identify different tribes and the regions they were from. Native American tattoos also held mystical or spiritual meanings to those who wore them. Natives believed  that the tattoo would bless them with supernatural powers or even strength. Many people took the tattoo of an animal whose strength they wanted to emulate. Which is a characteristic similar to the ancient Egyptians. 

Tattoos has a very interesting history , but still very much unknown about the earlier origins, but you can make a case that scarification maybe the oldest form of tattooing, and Ancient Egypt maybe the birthplace of the tattooing we know of today. Tattooing is definitely African culture, that would spread out to other parts of the globe over a process of ten thousand years.

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