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February 2017

Tattoos in Medicine—From the Bronze Age to the Modern Age

Author Affiliations
  • 1Department of Anesthesia, Naval Medical Center Portsmouth, Portsmouth, Virginia
JAMA Dermatol. 2017;153(2):130. doi:10.1001/jamadermatol.2016.0224

Tattooing is an age-old practice with religious, cultural, sentimental, and mystical significance. Recent archaeological discoveries suggest an alternatively compelling and probable medical purpose.

In 1991, German tourists discovered Europe’s oldest known human remains (3300 bce), embedded deep in the European Alps. The mummy, named “Otzi,” has been subjected to tests ranging from magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans to genome sequencing. Yet visible in plain sight on his ankles, knees, and lumbar spine are 61 distinctive tattoos with linear, geometric shapes. Radiographic studies revealed clinical evidence of osteochondrosis and spondylolisthesis in these joints, prompting medical and acupuncture experts to opine that the markings may have served a therapeutic purpose.1

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