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A new study of two 5,000-year-old mummies claims to have found proof of the world's oldest figurative tattoos. S-shaped and linear motifs were identified on the upper arm and shoulder of the female mummy.

Until now, the earliest tattoos with geometric shapes (but not with animal or other representations) have been discovered in the alpine mummy known as the Egg of the Pagans and dating back to the fourth millennium BC, which is nearly contemporary with the tattoos of the Egyptian mummies.

Daniel Antoine, one of the lead authors of the research paper and the British Museum's Curator of Physical Anthropology, said that the discovery had "transformed" our understanding of how people lived in this era.

'Only now are we gaining new insights into the lives of these remarkably preserved individuals.

Gebelein man was aged between 18 and 21 when he was stabbed in the back and killed.

There is evidence of tattooing on mummies found in the Taklamakan Desert in China dating from 1,200 BC.

The researchers believe that the tattoos would have denoted status, bravery and magical knowledge.

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Uncovered in 1896 years ago in the Egyptian town of Gebelein, the mummies lived during the pre-dynastic period and date to some point between 3351 and 3017 BC.

The mummy is one of the most prominent and important exhibits in the British Museum visited by millions of people each year since its discovery over 100 years ago.

Tattoos have been found on mummies dating back thousands of years. "Incredibly, at over 5,000 years of age, they push back the evidence for tattooing in Africa by a millennium", he told BBC News.

The female mummy, known as Gebelein woman, sported a series of four small "S" shaped motifs running vertically over her right shoulder, symbols which appeared in pottery decoration.

The markings on these mummies are now the oldest evidence of figural tattoos on humans.

It may represent clappers used in ritual dance, the researchers said. It was revealed that the marks were in fact tattoos of two horned animals. That benchmark still most likely goes to a naturally preserved mummified male named Ötzi, discovered in the Ötztal Alps in 1991.

Prior to the discovery, archaeologists believed tattooing in Egypt was only performed on women, as tattoos were only depicted on female figurines of the period. The locations of Ötzi's tattoos, on acupuncture or healing points, suggest that they were used as a pain relief treatment, whereas the tattoos on the Egyptian mummies were on highly visible areas, created to be shown off.