In 1991, the scientific world was rocked by the discovery of Otzi, a 5,000 year-old mummified man found in the mountains along the border between Austria and Italy.
Named after the Otz valley in which it was discovered, the mummy’s body was remarkably well preserved, as were most of his clothing, tools and weapons. Since then, scientists have examined the mummy’s remains thoroughly, learning much about the everyday life of ancient Europeans.
One of the most remarkable discoveries was a complicated system of bluish-black tattoos running along Otzi’s back, right knee and left ankle. While most tattoos are ornamental in nature, the tattoos found on Otzi’s body were in the form of simple stripes or crosses. They were also found in places that would normally be covered by hair or clothing. Did the ice man’s tattoos have any significance beyond ornamentation? A group of scientists from the University of Graz in Austria attempted to answer that question by theorising a relationship between the tattoos and traditional acupuncture points. Their findings, first published in The Lancet in 1999 and updated in Discover magazine in 2000, show that acupuncture, or a system of healing quite similar to it, may have been in use in central Europe more than 2,000 years earlier than previously believed.
The research team, led by Drs. Leopold Dorfer and Max Moser, overlaid the locations of the tattoos with acupuncture points. Experts from three acupuncture societies then examined the locations of the tattoos.
X-rays of the ice man’s body revealed evidence of arthritis in the hip joints, knees, ankles and lower spine, and many of the acupuncture points associated with his tattoos can be used for these conditions.
Forensic analysis of the mummy also revealed that his intestines were filled with whipworm eggs, which can cause severe abdominal pain. Five of the tattoos located on the body corresponded with points traditionally used to treat stomach disorders.
“The fact that not randomly selected points, but rather corresponding groups of points were marked by tattoos, seems especially intriguing,” the researchers noted. “From an acupuncturist’s viewpoint, the combination of points selected represents a meaningful therapeutic regimen.”
“Taken together,” the scientists added, “the tattoos could be viewed as a medical report from the stone age, or possibly as a guide to self-treatment marking where to puncture when pains occur.”
Admittedly, not all of the tattoos matched up precisely with known acupuncture sites; one tattoo, in fact, was located more than half an inch from the nearest acupuncture point. The scientists theorized that these differences in location “might be explained by twisting of the Iceman’s skin relative to underlying structures that may have occurred during 5,000 years in the ice.” They also acknowledged that some tattoos “are partly shifted today out of symmetry according to their location on the twisted body.”
Despite these small variations, the discovery of therapeutic tattoos on a mummy who died more than 2,000 years before the appearance of acupuncture as it is known today raises some interesting questions as to where this form of care originated and how long it has been practiced.
“The locations of the tattoos are similar to points used for specific disease states in the traditional Chinese and modern acupuncture treatment,” the scientists concluded. “This raises the possibility of acupuncture having originated in the Eurasian continent at least 2000 years earlier than previously recognized.”
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