A 2,000-year-old tattoo tool is the oldest in western North America

Made of cactus spines, the artifact has been sitting in storage since 1972

2000-year-old tattoo tool

TATTOO YOU  A tattoo-making tool, with a business end consisting of two pigment-stained cactus spines, dates to almost 2,000 years ago.

Robert Hubner/Washington State Univ.

While taking an inventory of stored artifacts excavated in Utah in 1972, archaeologist Andrew Gillreath-Brown thought he recognized one: a tattooing tool. That previously overlooked find dates to nearly 2,000 years ago, making it the oldest known tattoo implement from western North America.

Until now, several similar tattoo implements from the U.S. Southwest dated to no more than around 900 years ago, Gillreath-Brown and his colleagues report online February 28 in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports.

The long-unnoticed tool consists of a wooden handle bound at the end with split leaves of the yucca plant that hold in place two cactus spines, each stained black at its tip. Microscope and chemical analyses determined that the stains likely contain carbon, a common element in ancient and modern tattooing. Experiments with replicas of the Utah artifact determined that the instruments could incise lines of charcoal-based ink onto fresh pig skin.

Ancestors of Pueblo people, who lived around the same time in the Bears Ears region in Utah where the tool was found, wielded the implement at a time when foraging was giving way to farming, the researchers say.

Few examples of tattoo tools have been discovered. Pigment-stained bone needles and other items from a tattooing kit excavated in 1985 from a Native American grave in Tennessee date to between 1,600 and 3,500 years ago, says Gillreath-Brown, of Washington State University in Pullman. Obsidian flakes unearthed in the Solomon Islands, east of Papua New Guinea, were used to create tattoos around 3,000 years ago. The oldest known tattoos have been identified on Ötzi the Iceman’s 5,250-year-old body (SN: 1/23/16, p. 5).

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.

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