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Tattoos as Identity Markers: from the Middle Stone Age to Today

Updated: Nov 26, 2022

Written by Dicle Ezgi Ekinci


Tattoos are a ubiquitous social phenomenon found in many different parts of the world. Unlike other forms of body modification, tattoos are permanent changes on the human body and can therefore reveal a great deal about human behavior. What functions have tattoos served throughout history? Tattoos are a reflection of human history engraved in skin. In this paper, I will trace the emergence of tattoos as a symbolic tool from the Middle Stone Age by using the evidence from archeological sites to provide background information of the time-depth of tattoos. Then, I will use evidence to draw on the communicative function of tattoos. I will combine archeological evidence and examples both modern and past to show why people in certain groups tend to have similar tattoos. From there I will show how those tattoos are used as a medium of marking certain identities such as cultural, religious, and ethnic groups from the Neolithic period to modern day. Regardless of the reason people acquire tattoos, if people in certain groups have similar tattoos then tattoos become a marker for their identity.


The first suggestion of tattoos as communicative devices goes back to the Middle Stone Age. Prehistoric Archaeologist for the Tennessee Division of Archaeology, Aaron Deter-Wolf suggests that tattoos can be traced back to the Middle Stone Age (approximately 100kya) based on his archeological analysis on ochre-stained bone tools from Blombos Cave and his ethnographic analysis of “traditional tattooing societies”.1 Deeter-Wolf suggests these findings are “significant to our evolving understanding of the emergence of behaviourally modern human activity, personal identity, and likely the role of tattooing as one of the earliest symbolic human behaviours.”2


In “Tattoo: a multifaceted medium of communication,” Dr. Christian Wymann suggests that tattoos “can potentially emerge in diverse and incommensurable communicational contexts”3 in societies. Wymann draws on the context that tattoos are used in societies as a medium of communication with applications in punishment, law enforcement, medical tattooing, art purposes, and cosmetic purposes4. Wymann’s analysis of the communicative role of tattoos helps us to shed a light on the functions of tattoos across history.


One of the communicative roles tattoos adopt is that they are reflective signals of social identities as they are affected by the environment the person belongs to. Since tattoos will adopt different communicative roles in different groups, the groups will be distinguishable from each other. These groups’ identities include but are not limited to religious affiliations, national identities, ethnic identities, certain group affiliations, and so on. These signals become apparent as members of the certain groups will acquire similar, culturally significant, and/or religiously significant figures. For example, Trujillo et al. suggests based on their research conducted in modern Latin American countries that some tattoo figures in Latin America are chosen more frequently as these figures are affiliated with people’s national identity5. For instance the authors point out that “in Mexico, people wear Guadalupe Virgin tattoos and in Ecuador, the Dolorosa virgin, but they have the same meaning: protection, gratitude, blessing and success.”6The authors claim therefore that “the tattoo constitutes an ancestral legacy in Latin America”7. This evidence suggests that tattoos are not chosen only for decorative purposes but rather some people choose tattoos for their culturally significant meanings. Therefore, these tattoos lead people to be open for marking as people in certain groups will acquire similar types of tattoos. Other examples of ancestral ethnic tattoos include Amazigh tattoos.


When we look at the tattoo as an identity marker over deep historical evidence, we come across similar results. Phillipe Della Casa suggests that the oldest known tattoos on the iceman Ötzi (approximately 3200 BCE) “indicate some sort of medical tattooing (cf. Krutak 2013) – which interestingly addresses one of the very fundamental aspects of tattooing altogether.”8 Even though the primary purpose of this tattoo does not seem to be an identity marker, the theory that these people in the same group were all tattooed implies that these groups of people carried the similar tattoos. Therefore, their tattoos marked their groups regardless of their purpose. If an individual from Ötzi’s group came across another group, they might be able to understand that person does not belong to their group. Aaron Deter-Wolf’s theory about Ötzi supports that these tattoos existed in the culture. He claims“ Ötzi's 61 marks represent physical actions performed on his body as part of established social or therapeutic practices that almost certainly existed within his culture well before his birth.”9 Ötzi’s tattoo could have been an example where the tattoo implicitly acts as a marker. However, some tattoos were used as explicit markers. For example, mummies from the Scythian zone (400 BCE) provide evidence of status marking as “symbolic sceneries preserved on the bodies of high-status individuals.”10 Since these tattoos were found in higher-status individuals, it shows that tattoos adopted the role of distinguishing status in that society.


In conclusion, the emergence of tattoos since the Middle Stone Age appears to be accompanied by the function of tattoos as a social identity marker whether the tattoos themselves were explicitly or implicitly marking social identity. Since a person needs to carry the tattoo for their whole life, tattoos dictate belonging to a certain group for the lifetime. This expression of belonging and marking phenomena is as distinctive in the 21st century as it was in the past.


References:

[1] Deter-Wolf,“The Material Culture and Middle Stone Age Origins of Ancient Tattooing,” 18, 23 [2] Deter-Wolf,“The Material Culture and Middle Stone Age Origins of Ancient Tattooing,” 23 [3] Wymann, “Tattoo: a multifaceted medium of communication,” 50 [4] Wymann, “Tattoo: a multifaceted medium of communication,” 50 [5] Trujillo et al., “THE TATTOO AS ANCESTRAL LEGACY AND DICHOTOMIC ELEMENT OF NATIONAL IDENTITY,” 136 [6] Trujillo et al., “THE TATTOO AS ANCESTRAL LEGACY AND DICHOTOMIC ELEMENT OF NATIONAL IDENTITY,” 136 [7] Trujillo et al., “THE TATTOO AS ANCESTRAL LEGACY AND DICHOTOMIC ELEMENT OF NATIONAL IDENTITY,” 136 [8] Casa, “Matters of Identity: Body, Dress, and Markers in Social Context,” 11 [9] Deter-Wolf et al., “The World's Oldest Tattoos,” 23 [10] Casa, “Matters of Identity: Body, Dress, and Markers in Social Context,” 12

1. Casa, Philippe Della. “Matters of Identity: Body, Dress, and Markers in Social Context.” 2013.Philippe Della Casa & Constanze Witt (eds) Tattoos and Body Modifications in Antiquity. Proceedings of the sessions at the EAA annual meetings in The Hague and Oslo, 2010/11. Zurich Studies in Archaeology vol. 9, 2013, 9-13.

2. Christian Wymann. (2010). “Tattoo: a multifaceted medium of communication.” MedieKultur, 26 (49).

3. Deter-Wolf, Aaron, Benoît Robitaille, Lars Krutak, and Sébastien Galliot. 2016. “The World's Oldest Tattoos.” Journal of Archaeological Science, Reports 5: 19–24. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jasrep.2015.11.007.

4. Deter-Wolf, Aaron.“The Material Culture and Middle Stone Age Origins of Ancient Tattooing.” Philippe Della Casa & Constanze Witt (eds) Tattoos and Body Modifications in Antiquity. Proceedings of the sessions at the EAA annual meetings in The Hague and Oslo, 2010/11. Zurich Studies in Archaeology vol. 9, 2013, 15-25.

5. Trujillo, Mónica Santillán, Víctor Villavicencio Alvarez, Lorena Caiza Morales, Eunice Ayala, and Teresa Sánchez Manosalvas. 2021. “THE TATTOO AS ANCESTRAL LEGACY AND DICHOTOMIC ELEMENT OF NATIONAL IDENTITY.” International Journal of Organizational Business Excellence 1 (2). https://doi.org/10.21512/ijobex.v1i2.7155.

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