The information that is available on the origins of tattooing in Europe goes back to ancient Greek and Roman texts and to several archeological findings of much later periods, whose interpretations are not always agreed upon by scholars.

It seems that archeologists unanimously agree that tattooing was practiced in Europe before the last ice age, 12.000 years ago.

Proof of this can be found from discoveries made in 1867 in France, in the Grotte di Fées in Châtelperron – where bowls containing red and black pigments were found, along with sharp flint stone tools – and similar findings from caves in Scandinavia and Portugal. The tools’ sizes and shapes have led archeologists to believe that they were used for tattooing. Human figures with four vertical lines carved into their cheeks – which look like tattoos – were found on stone blocks in Aveyron and Tarn, France. In Romania, on the banks of the Danube, small clay statues with lines etched onto the bodies were discovered; these lines are also considered to be tattoos. The clay statues date from 5.000 BC and have been attributed to Cucuteni cultures.

From writings of ancient Greek and Roman historians we know that the Indo-European tribes from Western Europe tattooed themselves: the Dacians, the Thracians and the Illyrians would create tattoos which represented a person’s social status, a custom which they probably learned from their conquerors, the Asian Scythians.

Unquestionable proof of tattooing’s existence in ancient Europe was gained in 1991 when the mummified body of a man named Oetzi was discovered in a glacier in the Alps at the Italian-Austrian border.

The mummy was 5.000 years old and was preserved in excellent condition, thanks to ice. Tattoo marks are clearly visible on its skin. These marks were etched behind the knees and on the back – very unusual locations for tattoos, which are usually placed on highly visible parts of the body – and for this reason scholars are in agreement that these tattoos were made for therapeutic reasons, as a cure for back pain. Indeed, these tattoos are located in the same areas where acupuncture needles are placed to cure arthritis.

Text by Luisa Gnecchi Ruscone