The oldest tattooing tool in western North America was discovered by archaeologists from Washington State University. Using a cactus-spine and a skunkbush, the tool was crafted around 2,000 years ago by the Ancestral Pueblo people during the Basketmaker II Era in what is currently known as southeastern Utah. Anthropology Ph.D. candidate, Andrew Gillreath-Brown, happened to come upon the pen-sized instrument while listing stock of archaeological materials that were in storage for 40 years or more.
Gillreath-Brown is the lead author of a study on the tattoo tool which was distributed in copies of the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports. More than 1000 years of the earliest evidence of tattooing in western North America were pushed back upon his discovery. This gave scientists a unique glimpse into the early lives of a group of prehistoric people whose customs and culture were buried by time. “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, shared. “This tattoo tool provides us information about past Southwestern culture we did not know before.” Tattooing is an art form and/or expression that is prevalent across many indigenous cultures across the planet. Despite the widespread practice of tattooing, not much is known about when or why the practice started.
This enigma was especially noticeable in areas like the southwestern United States, where there was no evidence of any tattooing practices on the human remains procured from those places, nor were there any ancient records regarding the practice. Instead of going through historical records and autopsy, archaeologists turned to visual depictions in ancient artwork and the identification of tattoo implements in order to track down the origins of tattooing in the area. Before the recent discovery, bundled and hafted, or handled, cactus spine tattoo tools from Arizona and New Mexico were the strongest pieces of evidence of southwestern U.S. tattoo implements.
The earliest of these pieces of evidence go as far back as 1100-1280 AD. So when Gillreath-Brown encountered an implement from a site in Utah dating back a millennium further, bearing a striking resemblance to the previous one he found, he knew he had made a unique discovery. Gillreath-Brown shared, “When I first pulled it out of the museum box and realized what it might have been I got really excited.” The Ph.D. candidate himself has a large sleeve tattoo of a turtle shell rattle, a mastodon, water, and a forest on his left arm. The tool being studied consists of an 8.9 cm wooden skunkbush sumac handle, bound at the end with split yucca leaves and holding two side-by-side cactus spines, with their tips dyed black.
Gillreath-Brown stated, “The residue staining from tattoo pigments on the tip was what immediately piqued my interest as being possibly a tattoo tool.”Aaron Deter-Wolf, Gillreath-Brown’s friend and co-author of the study who had done ancient tattooing and edited several books on the subject, encouraged him to analyze the tips with the use of a scanning electron microscope, X-ray fluorescence, and energy dispersive ray spectroscopy. He even made sure of his discovery by applying several test tattoos on pigskin, with the use of a working replica.
After seeing the crystalline structure of the pigment, Gillreath-Brown identified the substance as carbon, which is a common element used in tattooing and body painting. According to him, the discovery “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.”