A fascinating post by Victor Mair at the Log:
Lars Krutak has several excellent articles on tattoo among the Iroquois and in Siberia and Arctic regions that provide insight for the functions of tattoos in other parts of the world. One observation that may be made about some of the tattoos Krutak has documented is that they serve as a sort of signature, albeit a highly complex and artistic one.
Now I come to the nub of this post. Note that the earliest (around 1200 BC) Chinese character for writing, wén 文, originally depicted and referred to tattoo (concerning this website, see my post on “Chinese ‘Etymology’”).
A few centuries later, when wén 文 acquired the meanings of “culture, civilization, writing”, a new character based upon it (by adding the silk radical to the left) was created to stand for the original meaning, wén 纹 (“lines, design”). It is remarkable that this character is still used in the Mandarin word for “tattoo”, viz., wénshēn 纹身 (lit., “lines / design-body”). Thus, there is a direct and unmistakable connection between tattoo and the development of writing in China. This is not surprising in light of the fact that the burial practices of the elite in the East Asian Heartland (EAH, subsequently to become the core of a sequence of dynasties now retrospectively referred to as “Chinese”) during the second half of the second millennium and the first half of the first millennium BC displayed clear affinities with steppe cultures.
See Mair’s post for links and, of course, for more discussion of this very intriguing idea.