Scientists Discover an Ancient Tattoo Tool Hidden Among Museum Artifacts

“Tattoos are a permanent marker that individuals would carry with them anywhere they went.”

Bob Hubner/WSU

In the summer of 2017, Washington State University Ph.D. candidate Andrew Gillreath-Brown inventoried 64 museum boxes full of dusty artifacts. He and a peer were charged with reorganizing the Turkey Pen collection — materials that were excavated in 1972 from the Greater Bears Ears Landscape in southeastern Utah. As he went to pick up and sift through yet another bag, he saw something he had never seen before — an artifact nearly four inches long, with cactus spines stained black.

Gillreath-Brown tells Inverse he was immediately thrilled by the idea that the ignored artifact could have played a very important role as a device for tattooing. In a study published in the Journal of Archeological Science: Reports, he explains how he confirmed his suspicions. As it turns out, not only did he and his colleagues identify a tattooing artifact — it just happens to be the oldest tattooing artifact ever found in western North America.

“Tattooing in the Southwestern U.S. was such a fascinating research topic, that I just could not pass up the opportunity to study it more in depth,” says Gillreath-Brown, who has his own large sleeve tattoo on his left arm. “I knew that there was the possibility that we could discover something about Southwestern culture that had never been discovered before.”

The artifact was found within the Greater Bears Ears Landscape, in southeastern Utah.

Bureau of Land Management/Flickr

An Ancient Way to Hand-Poke Tattoos

The tool consists of a wooden skunkbush sumac handle that is bound at the end with split yucca leaves. These leaves hold two parallel cactus spines, with residue staining from tattoo pigments on their tips. When Gillreath-Brown created a replica of the tool, he was able to hand-poke a tattooed line across pig skin — leaving a permanent mark after five minutes of repeated poking.

Part of the reason it’s so exquisitely preserved is because it was found in a naturally sheltered dry cave, alongside other organic artifacts and biological specimens like hair, charcoal, maize cobs, and old feces. In an open site, these same items would have decayed and disappeared. Now, the tool is safely housed in a legacy collection at the Washington State University Museum of Anthropology, nearly 963 miles from its origin.

The Value of Native American Tattoos

Western scholars, the team writes, have “long-overlooked and undervalued the practice of tattooing among Indigenous cultures of Native North America.” They blame colonialism and a lack of evidence for the lack of interest. While ethnographic accounts from the late 19th and 20th centuries document tattooing among numerous Native American groups, tattoos have not actually been identified on any mummified remains found in the Southwest.

Anthropologists studying this region are trying to understand the importance of Native American dress and body decoration before European contact. The existence of this tattooing tool, explains Gillreath-Brown, sheds light on “the significance of Indigenous traditions that were historically suppressed following European arrival to North America.”

The team dated the artifact to sometime around 79 to 130 CE, predating European arrival to North American by over 1,400 years. Its existence pushes back evidence of tattooing in western North America by more than a millennium, suggesting it was used some 2,000 years ago by the Ancestral Pueblo people of the Basketmaker II period — a prehistoric Native American civilization that lived across the Southwest.

A view of the Bears Ears landscape.

Flickr / bgwashburn

Where Tattooing Stands Today

Today, many Ancestral Pueblo people do not practice tattooing — making this tool an important piece of information on their ancient past. Tattooing was likely a way to mark who they were as people, the images signaling information about a person’s lived experience, gender, or ethnicity. This means of expressing identity is believed to have been curbed when Ancestral Pueblo people encountered European colonialism.

“[The tattoo tool] has 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,” Gillreath-Brown explains. “Tattoos are a permanent marker that individuals would carry with them anywhere they went.”

Now the Greater Bears Ears Landscape’s status as a National Monument is being disputed in federal court. In February 2018, an order declared by President Donald Trump officially opened parts of the region open to mining, expanded grazing, and off-road vehicle trekking. In turn, scientists and five Native American tribes have sued the government in an attempt to protect the religiously and historically significant site.

How people decorate their bodies provides insight into cultural expressions of achievement, group allegiances, identity, and status. Tattooing has been hard to study in ancient societies for which we do not have tattooed mummies, which adds to the challenge of placing current body modification practices into a long-term global perspective. Historic studies document the practice of tattooing among many Indigenous North American groups. While the distribution and complexity of tattoo traditions indicate these practices predate the fifteenth century CE and arrival of Europeans, the antiquity of North American tattooing is poorly understood. During a recent inventory of legacy archaeological materials from the Turkey Pen site in southeastern Utah, we discovered a tattooing implement constructed from a sumac stem, prickly pear cactus spines, and yucca leaf strips. This artifact was recovered in 1972 from an in situ midden but, until now, remained unidentified. The tattooing artifact dates to 79–130 CE during the Basketmaker II period (ca. 500 BCE – 500 CE), predating European arrival to North America by over 1400 years. This unusual tool is the oldest Indigenous North American tattooing artifact in western North America and has implications for understanding archaeologically ephemeral body modification practices. Events such as the Neolithic Demographic Transition—which occurs in many places around the globe—may link to an increase in body modification practices as social markers, as appears to be the case for the Basketmaker II people in the southwestern United States.
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