Little is known about the South American tattoo culture of the early centuries, but that doesn’t make them any less fascinating to both scientists and tattoo enthusiasts alike. Most of today’s references to the early stages of tattooing have been learned from the Ancient Romans, who travelled Europe extensively, documenting everything they encountered. Unfortunately, we don’t have such written record when it comes to ancient South America. What we understand of their tattoo practices, we have learned solely from what has been uncovered from the ground.
Those findings started in 1920. During this period, several mummies were uncovered by archaeologists in Peru. The mummies, which dated to the 11th Century AD, were decorated heavily with tattoos. The scientists studying the mummies believed them to be members of the Chimú, a people that date to before the well-known Incan tribe. At this point, little was – and quite frankly, still is – known about any pre-Incan civilization, which made these mummies quite significant. Despite the finding of these spectacular mummies, historians and archaeologists are still unsure of the importance of tattooing in the early South American cultures, leading to many speculations about the process.
It is believed that pre-Incan civilizations, like the Chimú, utilized several different methods of application. According to current studies, pigments were applied to the skin through the use of an assortment of needle-like tools. These tools were crafted from such objects as fishbone, parrot quill, and spiny conch. That’s quite a far cry from the tattoo applicators we have today! So, how do we know this, since little has been documented about the practice? Apparently, these objects were often included in the burial of the mummy – which implies that tattooing was held with high regards in the early years of South American cultures. The current belief is that tattoos were applied with a method being called ‘skin stitching’, and that women may have been the primary body ink artists.
From the period of 1100-1470 AD, it appears that tattooing was quite prevalent in the South American communities. Both men and women were tattooed, and estimations reveal that close to thirty percent of the population may have been tattooed. While tattooing may have been important to the pre-Incan populations, it lost favor with the nobility of the Incan tribes. They believed that the Sun Gods gave them the perfect bodies, and should not desecrate or alter them in any way. Tattoos were still used in religious practices, however. In fact, tattoos were placed on children as a way to encourage faith in a particular God and every location of the body held certain significance in their worshipping.
In 2006, a mummy was located in Peru that revealed great detail of tattooing in the Moche culture – a coastal based people that roamed the valleys of Peru during 100-800 AD. Archaeologists located a massive tomb; one they say rivaled that of King Tut’s. In it, they found a perfectly preserved female body and a wide assortment of objects ranging from jewelry, weaponry, and weaving tools. Claiming this find to be the best preserved Moche mummy found to date, scientists were astounded to unveil a female donning so many tattoos. Upon further investigation, the tattoos seem to have been applied using a charcoal powder that would have been inserted into the skin using a cactus spine of some sort. Her assortment of tattoos was also quite impressive. She bore tattoos of geometric designs alongside portrayals of spiders and mythical creatures.
With every mummy located in the regions of Peru, archaeologists, scientists, and historians all learn something new and exciting about the tattoo culture of the ancient South American people. While every find leads to new speculations and even newer questions, they all point to one thing. Tattoos did not hold the same stigma in the South American regions that those of the early Christian faith upheld.