Nav: Home

WSU researcher discovers oldest tattoo tool in western North America

February 28, 2019

PULLMAN, Wash. - Washington State University archaeologists have discovered the oldest tattooing artifact in western North America.

With a handle of skunkbush and a cactus-spine business end, the tool was made around 2,000 years ago by the Ancestral Pueblo people of the Basketmaker II period in what is now southeastern Utah.

Andrew Gillreath-Brown, an anthropology PhD candidate, chanced upon the pen-sized instrument while taking an inventory of archaeological materials that had been sitting in storage for more than 40 years.

He is the lead author of a paper on the tattoo tool which was published today in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports.

His discovery pushes back the earliest evidence of tattooing in western North America by more than a millennium and gives scientists a rare glimpse into the lives of a prehistoric people whose customs and culture have largely been forgotten.

"Tattooing by prehistoric people in the Southwest is not talked about much because there has not ever been any direct evidence to substantiate it," Gillreath-Brown, 33, said. "This tattoo tool provides us information about past Southwestern culture we did not know before."

Tattooing is an artform and mode of expression common to many indigenous cultures worldwide. However, little is known about when or why the practice began.

This is especially the case in places like the southwestern United States, where no tattoos have been identified on preserved human remains and there are no ancient written accounts of the practice.

Instead, archaeologists have relied on visual depictions in ancient artwork and the identification of tattoo implements to trace the origins of tattooing in the region.

Previously, bundled and hafted, or handled, cactus spine tattoo tools from Arizona and New Mexico provided the best archaeological examples of early tattoo implements from the Southwest. The earliest of these have been dated to between AD 1100-1280.

So when Gillreath-Brown came across a very similar looking implement from a site in Utah that is 1,000 years older, he knew he had found something special.

"When I first pulled it out of the museum box and realized what it might have been I got really excited," said Gillreath-Brown, who himself wears a large sleeve tattoo of a turtle shell rattle, mastodon, water, and forest on his left arm.

The tool consists of a 3 ½ inch wooden skunkbush sumac handle bound at the end with split yucca leaves and holding two parallel cactus spines, stained black at their tips.

"The residue staining from tattoo pigments on the tip was what immediately piqued my interest as being possibly a tattoo tool," Gillreath-Brown said.

Encouraged by Aaron Deter-Wolf, a friend and co-author of the study who had done ancient tattooing and edited several books on the subject, Gillreath-Brown analyzed the tips with a scanning electron microscope, X-ray florescence and energy dispersive ray spectroscopy. For good measure, he did several test tattoos using a replica on pig skin.

He saw the crystalline structure of pigment and determined it likely contained carbon, a common element in body painting and tattooing.

The find, 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 time when population densities were increasing in the Southwest."
-end-


Washington State University

Related Archaeologists Articles:

Archaeologists uncover new clues to Maya collapse
Using the largest set of radiocarbon dates ever obtained from a single Maya site, a team of archaeologists, led by the University of Arizona, developed a high-precision chronology that sheds new light on patterns leading up to the two major collapses of the Maya civilization.
Swedish and Greek archaeologists discover unknown city in Greece
An international research team at the Department of Historical Studies, University of Gothenburg, is exploring the remains of an ancient city in central Greece.
Mummified remains identified as Egyptian Queen Nefertari
A team of international archaeologists believe a pair of mummified legs on display in an Italian museum may belong to Egyptian Queen Nefertari -- the favorite wife of the pharaoh Ramses II.
UF archaeologist uses 'dinosaur crater' rocks, prehistoric teeth to track ancient humans
Where's the best place to start when retracing the life of a person who lived 4,000 years ago?
Archaeologists use drones to trial virtual reality
Archaeologists at The Australian National University and Monash University are conducting a trial of new technology to build a 3-D virtual-reality map of one of Asia's most mysterious sites -- the Plain of Jars in Laos.
Lord of the Rings: UC archaeologists unveil new findings from Greek warrior's tomb
A University of Cincinnati team's rare discovery of four gold rings in the tomb of a wealthy Bronze Age warrior undisturbed for 3,500 years prompts a new consideration of Greek history.
Archaeologists uncover 13,000-year-old bones of ancient, extinct species of bison
In what is considered one of the oldest and most important archaeological digs in North America, scientists have uncovered what they believe are the bones of a 13,000- to 14,000-year-old ancient, extinct species of bison.
Archaeologists find world's oldest axe in Australia
Archaeologists from the Australian National University have unearthed fragments from the edge of the world's oldest-known axe, found in the Kimberley region of Western Australia.
Archaeologists create 3-D interactive digital reconstruction of King Richard III
On first year anniversary of the week in which King Richard III was reinterred, Leicester archaeologists use sophisticated photogrammetry software to create fully rotatable computer model which shows the king's remains in-situ.
Archaeologists from Mainz University continue their excavation work in Iran
Archaeologists from Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz have been progressively examining the city located in the ancient Elamite site of Haft Tappeh in southwestern Iran since 2002.

Related Archaeologists Reading:

Best Science Podcasts 2019

We have hand picked the best science podcasts for 2019. Sit back and enjoy new science podcasts updated daily from your favorite science news services and scientists.
Now Playing: TED Radio Hour

Changing The World
What does it take to change the world for the better? This hour, TED speakers explore ideas on activism—what motivates it, why it matters, and how each of us can make a difference. Guests include civil rights activist Ruby Sales, labor leader and civil rights activist Dolores Huerta, author Jeremy Heimans, "craftivist" Sarah Corbett, and designer and futurist Angela Oguntala.
Now Playing: Science for the People

#521 The Curious Life of Krill
Krill may be one of the most abundant forms of life on our planet... but it turns out we don't know that much about them. For a create that underpins a massive ocean ecosystem and lives in our oceans in massive numbers, they're surprisingly difficult to study. We sit down and shine some light on these underappreciated crustaceans with Stephen Nicol, Adjunct Professor at the University of Tasmania, Scientific Advisor to the Association of Responsible Krill Harvesting Companies, and author of the book "The Curious Life of Krill: A Conservation Story from the Bottom of the World".