Ink with meaning: What we can learn from the tattoos of our ancestors

Story highlights

  • Tattoos are more popular than ever before
  • A tattoo speaks volumes about cultural background and personal identity

This story was originally published on in 2015.

(CNN)Eight thousand years ago, a pencil mustache was tattooed onto the upper lip of a young Peruvian man. His mummified body has since become the oldest existing example of tattoo art on the planet.

Today's world is, of course, almost unrecognizable by comparison. But according to professor Nicholas Thomas, director of the Museum of Archeology and Anthropology at Cambridge University -- author of a new book about body art -- the tattoo has made a powerful comeback.
    "There has been an extraordinary, epochal change in the last 25 years," he said. "When I was a child in the 1960s, we didn't see tattoos everywhere. But there has been an explosion in popularity, and this tells us a lot about who we are, both culturally and as individuals."
      In fact, according to some studies, up to 38% of Americans and a fifth of British adults have some type of long-term body art.
      Many interlocking factors have a bearing on the popularity of the tattoo. Foremost among them is a change in the popular conception of the body.