Researchers Find 2,000-Year-Old Tattoo Needle

Archaeologists from Washington State University have presented a new study where they detail the discovery of what is believed to be the ‘oldest tattooing artifact in western North America.’

Created more than 2,000 years ago by the Ancestral Pueblo people of the Basketmaker II period in what is now southeastern Utah, the tattooing needle is composed of a handle of skunkbush and a cactus‑spine business end.

Cliff Palace, Mesa Verde National Park. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Cliff Palace, Mesa Verde National Park. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

The tool was not discovered recently. In fact, it had remained in storage for more than 40 years, until Andrew Gillreath‑Brown, an anthropology Ph.D. candidate came across it while taking an inventory of archaeological materials.

The discovery led him to write a paper on the tattoo tool which has been published in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports.

The evidence provided by Gillreath‑Brown is sort of a history changer. In fact, his discovery pushes back the earliest evidence of tattooing in western North America by more than a millennium.

It also offers scientists a rare and unprecedented view into the lives of the prehistoric people from the region, whose customs and culture have been largely forgotten.

The ancient Tattooing tool. Image Credit: Robert Hubner, Washington State University.
The ancient Tattooing tool. Image Credit: Robert Hubner, Washington State University.

“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, explained.

“This tattoo tool provides us information about past Southwestern culture we did not know before.”

In the past, researchers have found evidence that several thousand years ago, people had already adopted tattooing as a form of art and expression.

But little is known when exactly the practice began.

In places like the Southwestern United States, no tattoos have so far been identified on preserved human remains.

The lack of written material detailing the practice makes it also difficult for experts to study.

To understand more about the art of tattooing in the United States, archaeologists have relied on visual depictions in ancient artwork.

Previous archeological excavations revealed cactus spine tattoo tools from Arizona and New Mexico dating back between AD 1100‑1280.

The discovery made by Gillreath‑Brown pushes the history of tattooing back by at least 1,000 years.

“When I first pulled it out of the museum box and realized what it might have been I got really excited,” said Gillreath‑Brown. “The residue staining from tattoo pigments on the tip was what immediately piqued my interest as being possibly a tattoo tool.”

After an analyzing the artifact with a scanning electron microscope, X‑ray fluorescence, and energy dispersive ray spectroscopy, the researcher discovered the crystalline structure of pigment and determined it likely contained carbon, which is a common element in body painting and tattooing, reports Washington State University.

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Washington State University
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