The archaeologists of the State University of Washington have discovered the oldest tattoo artifact in western North America.
With a skunkbush handle and a commercial end of cactus-spine, the tool was made about 2,000 years ago by the town Ancestral Village of the Basketmaker II period in what is today the southeast of Utah.
Andrew Gillreath-Brown, a doctoral candidate in anthropology, took advantage of the medium-sized instrument while taking an inventory of archaeological materials that had been stored for more than 40 years.
He is the principal author of an article about the tattoo tool that was published today in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports.
His discovery pushes the first evidence of tattoos in western North America for over a millennium and gives scientists an unusual glimpse of the lives of a prehistoric town whose customs and culture have been forgotten.
"The tattoo on the part of prehistoric people in the southwest does not speak much because there was no direct evidence to substantiate it," said Gillreath-Brown, 33. "This tattoo tool gives us information about the previous southwestern culture we do not know before."
Tattooing is an artistic form and expression common to many indigenous cultures around the world. However, little is known of when or why practice began.
This is especially the case in places like the Southwest of the United States, where tattoos have not been identified on conserved human remains and there are no old written accounts of the practice.
Instead, archaeologists have relied on visual images in ancient artworks and the identification of tattoo implements to track the origins of tattooing in the region.
Previously, the tattoo tools of pimple cactus and cotton and cotton from Arizona and New Mexico have been provided with the best archaeological examples of the early tattoo instruments of the southwest. The first of them date back to AD 1100-1280.
So when Gillreath-Brown found a very similar implement from a Utah site that is 1,000 years old, he knew he had found something special.
"When I'll get it out first from the museum box and I realized that it could be really excited," said Gillreath-Brown, who uses a big-sized tattoo with a turtle, mastodon, water and forest clover on his left arm.
The tool consists of a 3½-inch wooden wooden blanket joined together with divided cassava leaves and has two parallel cactus thorns, black spots on their tips.
"The tattoo pigment residue spot on the tip was what immediately disturbed my interest as possibly a tattooing tool," said Gillreath-Brown.
Animated by Aaron Deter-Wolf, a friend and co-author of the study that had made ancient tattoos and edited several books on the subject, Gillreath-Brown analyzed the suggestions with an electronic scattering microscope, X-ray fluorescence and dispersive energy spectroscopy. In a good measure, he made several test tattoos using a replica of pig skin.
He saw the crystalline structure of the pigment and determined that it probably contained carbon, a common element in body painting and tattooing.
The discovery, said Gillreath-Brown, "has a great significance to understand how people have managed relationships and how the state of people in the past could be marked during a time when population densities increased in the southwest."
UNIVERSITY OF STATE OF WASHINGTON
Header image – This is an approach to a tattoo tool of 2,000-year-old cacti thorns discovered by WSU archaeologist, Andrew Gillreath-Brown. Credit: Bob Hubner / WSU