Tattooing and the Origins of Acupuncture

Anthony Campbell

Revised 19 September 2017

The origins of acupuncture are unknown. There has been speculation that it may have developed from observation of symptom relief by arrow wounds received in battle, but this seems intuitively unlikely; the trauma of the wound would probably obscure any coincidental relief of pre-existing symptoms. A more plausible idea has been put forward by Kuriyama(1): acupuncture may have developed from the practice of bloodletting, which was used in ancient China as well as in Europe. Kuriyama says that the method was more sophisticated than is generally realized; different sites were used for different indications and this, he claims, could have provided a basis for discovering specific therapeutic effects of local needling.

It has occurred to me that another scenario could be the development of acupuncture from tattooing. Tattooing has been practised in most pre-technological societies and may indeed be a near-universal human activity, going back to Neolithic times or even earlier. It doesn't seem unlikely that it would on occasion have provided coincidental relief from pre-existing pain. Moreover, magic diagrams may have been tattooed specifically to cure disease and this would have sometimes worked.

Over time, the diagrams would have become more perfunctory, gradually degenerating into simple lines; ultimately the tattooing would be dispensed with and the needle would be used on its own.

Possible supporting evidence for this idea comes from the discovery of tattoo marks in the lumbar region of the so-called Ice Man discovered recently in the Austro-Italian Alps, who died some 5300 years ago. It has been suggested that these marks were made as a treatment for back pain. If so, this would be an instance of therapeutic tattooing performed in Europe in a remote era; a similar practice could have arisen independently in China. The so-called acupuncture needles found in tombs in China could equally well be tattooing needles.

Note added 30 August 2004

A possible objection to this theory is that patients today do not generally report pain relief of incidental symptoms after tattooing. This can be explained by the fact that it is generally necessary for patients to expect to be treated if acupuncture is to work. A purely decorative procedure might therefore not be very effective in relieving symptoms.

In this connection I'm grateful to D. Moyshe Kalman for the following comment.

If, in antiquity, the tattooing was performed as a ritualistic act initially to heal a problem, such as a shaman or priest tattooing a bad knee with a symbolic picture to attract some healing power, the initial act would have been perceived as therapeutic and over the years could easily have led to the invention of acupuncture. Tattooing is absolutely forbidden by the Hebrew Scriptures as a heathen practice, which indicates that in antiquity it was viewed as a ritual act rather than a cosmetic act. Body piercing in the nose or ears is not forbidden and is seen as a purely cosmetic act. I think this strongly confirms your link with tattooing and the origins of acupuncture.


(1)Kuriyama S (1999). The Expressiveness of the Body and the Divergence of Greek and Chinese Medicine. Zone Books, New York,