Archaeological evidence of tattoos exists from 6,000 year old European sites, on mummies dating to 2,000 B.C. in Egypt’s Middle Kingdom and was practiced among Central American peoples, Asian and Polynesian cultures, North American and Australian indigenous peoples (Hewitt 1997:68; Sanders 1989:9). A 5,300 year old frozen body found in the Austrian Alps in 1991 had charcoal tattoos on his legs and feet (Spindler 1995). Tattooing was practiced in pre- and post-Christian Europe and the Middle East; tattooing and self-mutilation is referenced in both the Old Testament and the Koran. Religious tattoos in later times were acquired by Coptic, Syrian, Russian, Abyssinian and Armenian pilgrims returning from the Holy Land (Hewitt 1997:66).
The word tatau (tattoo) in Samoan means appropriate, balanced and fitting.
Male and female tattoos have different names in Samoan. The word for male tattoo is pe'a, which means flying fox and refers to the dark charcoal colour of the tattoo. It covers the area from the knee to the waist. Each tattoo is completely unique, but specific elements of the designs recur. The order in which the tattoo is applied is always the same - the lumbar region (the small of the back where the Samoan mythical figures Taema and Tilafaiga were joined) is always tattooed first and the navel is always last. The navel design is very important and is called the pute. Without the pute, the tattoo is unfinished and the wearer carries a sense of shame because he was not able to complete the ceremony.
The word for a female tattoo is malu, which means to be protected and sheltered. Most of the elements of the designs are purely ornamental and do not follow any specific pattern. However, the diamond shaped design on the back of the knee, which is also called a malu, is always present. The taupou (village maiden), who has an important ceremonial role in the community, is always tattooed from her knee to the top of her leg and sometimes on her hands.
Both male and female tattoos show that you are ready for life, for adulthood and to be of service to your community.