Untitled-1 copy Tattoos of the “Toltec Mummy” (1889) and a new rendition of her body art (right and left arms).

September 21, 2013

In 1889, Mexican archaeologist Leopoldo Batres was contacted about the find of a “Toltec Mummy” in a cave near Santa María Camotlán, Oaxaca. Batres published an obscure illustrated paper on the discovery later that year, which partially depicted the geometric forearm tattoos of the individual. Some years later, the mummy found its way to the Trocadéro Ethnographic Museum in Paris.

Over the course of the following 123 years, the female mummy lay largely forgotten until 2012 when detailed studies of her body were finally conducted. Today, the mummy is housed in the collections of the Musée du quai Branly in Paris.

Remarkably, radiocarbon dating has shown that this individual dates to 250 A.D. Her arm tattoos are now known to be more extensive and complex than previously thought and are possibly related to Later Oaxacan (“Mixteca-Puebla”) scribal traditions. The “Toltec Mummy” provides the earliest firm evidence of tattooing in Mexico.

Hopefully additional studies (e.g., infrared photography, tattoo pigment research) of this unique individual will reveal more clues to the meanings behind her exquisite zoomorphic tattoos.

mom1Low-res photos depicting right and left arm tattoos. The left arm tattoo reminds me of a ramiform or centipede motif. Both designs are widely used as tattoo patterns across the Indigenous world.


Batres, L. 1889. Momia tolteca clasificada. Mexico City: Escuela Nacional de Artes y Oficios.

Leboreiro, I., J. Mansilla, F. de Pierrebourg, and C. Moulherat. 2013. “Momias y tatuajes: Leopoldo Batres y ‘La Momia Tolteca.'” Arqueologia Mexicana 21(121):25-29.

Urcid, J. 2011. “The Written Surface as a Cultural Code: A Comparative Perspective of Scribal Traditions from Southwestern Mesoamerica.” Pp. 111-148 in Their Way of Writing: Scripts, Signs, and Pictographs in Pre-Columbian America (E.H. Boone and G. Urton, eds.). Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks Museum.