The word tattoo is believed to take root from the Polynesian "ta" which means 'to strike something' and the other popular derivative comes from the Tahitian 'tatau' which is 'to mark something'. Although evidence of tattoos is consistently seen in civilizations from over 5000 years in the past, history is largely silent about the roots of the practice.
It is assumed that tattoos, much like X-rays, were an accidental invention. The soot and ash rubbed into an open wound left a permanent mark on the body even after the wound healed, giving rise to the (now bitter-sweet) body art.
The discovery of "Otzi the ice man" in 1991 reveals much needed information about tattoos. Otzi was found in the Otztal Alps between Italy and Austria – his body frozen and preserved in the natural setting for about 5300 years (revealed later tests.) Known as Europe's oldest natural human mummy ever found he reveals a total of 57 tattoos on his body. They were more carbon tattoos of straight lines and a cross than tattoos of art as we understand them today. It is suggested that these tattoos were used for medical or therapeutic reasons.
In ancient Greece people were captivated by the idea of tattoos (which they learned from the ancient Persians) and used them as glamorous beauty marks. The Roman eventually adopted the practice but used however for different purposes. Many Roman writers such as Seneca, Virgil and Galenus reported that many slaves, criminals, gladiators and soldiers were tattooed for various reasons. For example, slaves sold to Asia were tattooed 'tax paid'.
Among the early natives of North America, tattooing was seen as a mark of honor and distinction. The intricate tattoos of the Iroquoians of Ontario marked high status. Among the Inuits of north-west America, the tattoos on the chins of women reveal their marital status and group identity. The Chickasaw used tattoos to distinguish their exceptional warriors.
Some older evidence is seen in the mummies of Egypt (although Egyptologists have largely overlooked this art form.) A series of dots and lines forming geometric patterns were found on the bodies of the mummies. These ancient Egyptian tattoos were only seen on female mummies that were also associated with religion and ritual.
In the Polynesian culture, where the word tattoo supposedly comes from, they have a prominent historic significance. In Polynesia the tattoos are believed to be manifestations of the person's "mana" – an impersonal quality that resides in all creation, understood by some as the predecessor to religion.