Archaeologists at Washington State University have discovered the oldest tattoo artifact in western North America.
With a handful of skunkbush and a cactus-spine business finish, the tool was made about 2,000 years ago by the Ancestral Pueblo people of the Basketmaker II period in what is now southeastern Utah.
Andrew Gillreath-Brown, a doctoral student in anthropology, found the pen-sized instrument while making an inventory of archaeological materials that had been in storage for more than 40 years.
He is the lead author of an article on the tattoo tool that was published today in Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports.
His discovery removes the earliest evidence of tattooing in western North America in more than a millennium and gives scientists a rare insight into the lives of a prehistoric people whose customs and culture have been largely forgotten.
"Tattooing of prehistoric people in the Southwest is not much talked about because there has never been any direct evidence to substantiate it," said Gillreath-Brown, 33. "This tattoo tool gives us information about the Southwest culture we did not know before."
Tattooing is an art form and mode of expression common to many indigenous cultures around the world. However, little is known about when or why practice began.
This is especially the case in places like the Southwest United States where no tattoo has been identified on preserved human remains and there are no ancient written reports of practice.
Instead, archaeologists relied on visual representations on ancient masterpieces and the identification of tattoo instruments to track the origins of the tattoo in the region.
Previously, packaged and transported, or handled, cactus spine tattoo tools from Arizona and New Mexico provided the best archaeological examples of early Southwestern tattoo instruments. The oldest of these were dated between 1100-1280 AD.
So when Gillreath-Brown came across a very similar-looking implement from a 1,000-year-old Utah site, he knew he'd found something special.
"When I took it out of the museum box and figured out what might have happened, I was really excited," said Gillreath-Brown, who wears a big tattoo of a rattle of turtle shell, mastodon, water and forest. left arm.
The tool consists of a 3 ½-inch skunkbush sumac wood rope, tied at the end with divided yucca leaves and holding two parallel spines of cacti, stained black at their tips.
"The stained residue of tattoo pigments on the tip was what immediately piqued my interest as possibly being a tattoo tool," said Gillreath-Brown.
Encouraged by Aaron Deter-Wolf, a friend and co-author of the study who did ancient tattoos and edited several books on the subject, Gillreath-Brown analyzed the tips with a scanning electron microscope, X-ray fluorescence and dispersive energy spectroscopy rays. . For good measure, he made several test tattoos using a replica on the skin of a pig.
He saw the crystalline structure of the pigment and determined that it probably contained carbon, a common element in body painting and tattooing.
The finding, said Gillreath-Brown, "has a great significance for understanding how people managed relationships and how status may have been marked on people in the past, during a period when population densities were increasing in the southwest."
WASHINGTON STATE UNIVERSITY
Header Image – This is a close-up of a 2,000 year old cactus spine tattoo tool discovered by archaeologist Andrew Gillreath-Brown of WSU. Credit: Bob Hubner / WSU