iceman_foto copy Illustration of Ötzi’s new tattoos (after Samadelli 2009:52). The dark coloration of the body markings is probably related to multiple applications at the same loci over time.

January 22, 2015

A new article has just been published in the Journal of Cultural Heritage mapping the tattoos of the 5300-year-old Tyrolean Iceman or “Ötzi.” Utilizing a new innovative multispectral photographic imaging technique, the research team headed by Dr. Marco Samadelli unveiled the discovery of four previously undocumented tattoos on the right lower thoracic region of the torso. The new tattoo “set” increases the total number of Ötzi’s tattoos to 61 and are the only body markings located on the torso itself.

I have written, quite extensively, on the subject of therapeutic tattooing, including an early paper linking Ötzi’s tattoos to classical acupuncture points and meridians (Krutak 1999). I based this argument on field data secured while studying the tattoo traditions of the St. Lawrence Island Yupiget of Alaska, as well as other evidence, for my Master’s thesis.

Since then, I have continued to uncover evidence for medicinal tattooing in Sarawak, Papua New Guinea, and other places (see Krutak 2013), while also documenting Copenhagen-based Colin Dale’s “Ötzi Experiment” (Krutak 2012). Dale, working with German Blacksmith David Schütze and physiotherapist / Chinese medicinal expert Irg Bernhardt, recreated 55 Ötzi-esque tattoos on David’s skin in order to treat his asthma and rheumatic joint pain. The markings were hand-poked with a bone needle like that found on the body of the Iceman, and were placed at or near the same bodily locations as those appearing on Ötzi. The medicinal treatment was aimed at improving David’s Qi system, and after two follow-up examinations (e.g., 3 months and 1 year afterwards) Bernhardt concluded: “In my estimation, this project shows that tattooing of acupuncture joints [produces] a sustained therapeutic effect. And not just for a short period of time, since it actually seems to work for the long term….A similar effect may be likened to a series of acupuncture treatments (10-15) in conjunction with the use of herbs” (Krutak 2012:146).

After reading the new research by Samadelli et al. (2015), I was intrigued by the possibility that the new set of tattoos were located on or near classical acupuncture points or meridians. If they were, perhaps these could be traced to Otzi’s known pathological conditions, such as gallbladder stones, whipworms in his colon and atherosclerosis. So I consulted Gillian Powers (M.Ac., L.Ac.), a licensed acupuncturist, about the new tattoos.

She reported: “It depends on how much his skin has sagged…[but] most of the acupuncture points by T15 [new tattoo location] can be used to treat the symptoms associated with whipworms (abdominal pain, nausea/vomiting, diarrhea) and gallstones (abdominal pain, nausea/vomiting, etc), as well as breathing issues. These include Stomach 18 (in the 5th intercostal space), Liver 14 (in the 6th intercostal space), Gallbladder 23 (in the 7th intercostal space), and Stomach 19. Besides which, T15 is in relatively close proximity to the gallbladder itself, and where gallstone pain can be felt.”

Although Samadelli et al. (2015:5) did not directly address the possible relationships between the new tattoos and specific acupoints, they concluded: “Therefore, it cannot be ruled out that the iceman’s tattoos were indeed applied as a therapeutic treatment. In future studies, the location of the new tattoos and its relation to acupuncture points and/or meridians should be further explored and discussed.” I fully agree with this statement (!) and hopefully this post will serve as a preliminary step in that direction.

*For more research focusing on the vast body of medicinal tattooing practices across Native North America, please see Krutak (2014).

**For additional press coverage of the Iceman’s new tattoos click here.