Oldest known tattoo kits discovered
March 13, 2019 12:32 PM   Subscribe

Researchers announced last month that 2,000-year-old prickly pear cactus spines recently rediscovered in museum storage are the oldest known tattoo-making tool from western North America (LiveScience)(study full text). The ink-stained, pen-size tool (image), which was made by the Ancestral Pueblo people in what is now southeastern Utah, pushes back evidence of tattooing in western North America by more than 1,000 years. And now this month a new study reports that four tiny bone combs (image) found on the island of Tongatapu, Tonga are 2,700 year old, making them the world's oldest-known tattoo kits (Vice) (study full text). The combs (Youtube), which appear functionally similar (image) to contemporary flat (image) tattoo needles, are made of bird and human bone.

Prehistoric tattooing tools have typically not been found in the rare places where tattooed human skin survived. Indigenous cultures in the Southwest in the 1930s had tattoos, but according to the Pueblo study's lead researcher Andrew Gillreath-Brown (press release), "Tattooing by prehistoric people in the Southwest is not talked about much because there has not ever been any direct evidence to substantiate it." It's worth noting that the Tonga and Pueblo discoveries -- as well as last year's identification of a wild turkey bone tattooing kit found in a Native American grave in Tennessee in 1985 -- all came from analyzing or re-testing items already in collections. Aaron Deter-Wolf, an archaeologist with the Tennessee Division of Archaeology, told MentalFloss he expects archaeologists will identify more tattoo kits hiding in collections: "What I suspect is that once we start looking at more of these things, we're going to find that tattooing is an incredibly widespread activity."
posted by not_the_water (2 comments total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
This is very cool!
posted by supermedusa at 6:37 PM on March 13 [1 favorite]

This is fascinating. One of the theories about Otzi the Ice Man's tattoos is that they were for inflammation and pain control, that is a belief that is making a comeback now in some communities.
posted by fshgrl at 11:32 PM on March 13 [1 favorite]

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