How Natives Link Cultural Tattoos To Their Ancestors

“As scientists find more tattoos on preserved remains from Indigenous cultures, artists living today are drawing from them to revive cultural traditions.” K. Langolis, The New York Times, July 5, 2021

Elle Festin, a California tattooist of Filipino heritage, uses the Ibaloi and Kankanaey fire mummies. Credit- Nia Macknight for The NYT.jpeg

Excerpt: Inked Mummies, Linking Tattoo Artists With Their Ancestors, By Krista Langlois, The New York Times,  July 5, 2021

“In the 1970s, hunters stumbled upon eight 500-year-old bodies preserved by the Arctic climate near Qilakitsoq, an abandoned Inuit settlement in northwest Greenland. Later, when scientists photographed the mummies with infrared film, they made an intriguing discovery: Five of the six females had delicate lines, dots and arches tattooed on their faces.

Tattoos on an Ibaloi woman in 1999. Credit-Getty Images

For thousands of years, tattoos were more than just body decoration for Inuit and other Indigenous cultures. They served as symbols of belonging, signified coming-of-age rituals, channeled spiritual beliefs or conferred powers that could be called upon while giving birth or hunting. Yet starting around the 17th century, missionaries and colonists intent on ‘civilizing’ Indigenous people put a stop to tattooing in all but the most remote communities.

The practice so thoroughly disappeared in Greenland that Maya Sialuk Jacobsen, who spent her childhood there, worked for a decade as a Western-style tattooist before realizing that her Inuit ancestors had also been tattooists, albeit of a very different nature…’I take great pride in tattooing a woman,’  she said. “When she meets her foremothers in the next world, it will be like looking in a mirror.’

Aaron Deter-Wolf studies ancient North American tattooing tools like this one used by the Pueblo in southeast Utah. Credit- R. Hubner, WSU

Until recently, Western archaeologists largely ignored tattooing. Because of these scientists’ disinterest, tools made for tapping, poking, stitching or cutting human skin were cataloged as sewing needles or awls, while tattooed mummies ‘were regarded more as objects of fascination than scientific specimens,’ said Aaron Deter-Wolf, a prehistoric archaeologist at the Tennessee Division of Archaeology and a leading researcher in the archaeology of tattooing…But as tattooing has become more mainstream in Western culture, Mr. Deter-Wolf and other scientists have begun to examine preserved tattoos and artifacts for insights into how past people lived and what they believed.”