Two mummies in the British Museum are thought to bear the traces of the earliest ever figural tattoos, new research has revealed.
The naturally mummified bodies from Predynastic Egypt have tattoos of animals and motifs dating back from 3351 to 3017 BC.
At over 5,000 years of age, the mummies "push back the evidence for tattooing in Africa by a millennium," said Daniel Antoine, Curator of Physical Anthropology at the British Museum.
"Only now are we gaining new insights into the lives of these remarkably preserved individuals," he added.
S-shaped motifs and linework on the upper right arm and shoulder of a Predynastic female mummy from Gebelein are the oldest-known examples of female tattooing.
The tattoos are similar to designs and objects held by figures participating in ceremonial activities on painted ceramics of the same period.
Researchers found images of a wild bull and a sheep on the other male mummy's shoulder, which is known as "Gebelein Man A".
He was discovered around 100 years ago and was between 18 and 21 years old when he died from a stab wound to the back, according to the results of previous CT scans.
Scientists examined all visible skin on the individuals looking for signs of body modification as part of a new conservation and research programme.
They employed the latest scientific methods, including CT scanning, radiocarbon dating and infrared imaging, to inspect the bodies.
Both mummies were found in what was the town of Gebelein in Egypt, around 40 km south of modern-day Luxor.
At present, the oldest surviving examples of tattoos are mainly geometric and found on a mummy from the Tyrolean Alps known as Ötzi (4th millennium BC).
The Gebelein mummies' tattoos are from roughly the same period (3370–3100 BC), and can therefore be considered among the earliest surviving tattoos in the world, according to the British Museum.