The world's oldest figurative tattoos have been discovered on two 5,000-year-old mummies from Egypt.
Tattoos depicting a wild bull and a Barbary sheep were found on the upper arm of a male mummy, while the shoulder and upper arm of a female mummy bore "S"-shaped motifs.
The find, details of which are published in the Journal of Archaeological Science, pushes back evidence for the tattooing in Africa by 1,000 years, and it overturns the belief that only women were tattooed in Predynastic Egypt -- the era before the country's unification by the first pharaoh about 3100 BC.
"The symbols being tattooed are quite extraordinary," said Daniel Antoine, one of the lead researchers in the project and the British Museum's curator of physical anthropology.
A sign of status, magical power or just art?
Antoine says the animals on the man, especially the bull, are likely to be associated with status, power and virility. Both horned animals are frequently depicted in predynastic Egyptian art. Similarly, the S motifs that run vertically over the woman's right shoulder were used in pottery decoration at the time.
Antoine points out that the mummies -- who, according to radiocarbon dating, lived between 3351 and 3017 BC -- were from the period before Egyptian hieroglyphs came into use. This makes it harder to determine the meanings behind the symbols, as all researchers have to go on is parallels with imagery found elsewhere.
He speculates that the tattoos symbolized a combination of things: "referencing status, maybe bravery in the case of the animals, but also maybe something more complex, like cult or magical knowledge or protection."
"They were very sophisticated people 5,000 years ago," he said. "There's no reason why their reasoning for having a tattoo on their body wouldn't be as multifaceted as it is today."