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Oldest tatt tools

Updated: Jun 28, 2021

Ouch. World’s oldest-known tattooing tools identified in North America.

Tattooing has a long history, or rather prehistory. We know that late Ice Age people in Eurasia tattooed. Ötzi, the Bronze Age Ice Man from the Alps, bore tattoos when he perished in about 3200 BC. These kinds of permanent markings, made by puncturing skin with ink-laden tools, are common enough on well-preserved ancient corpses to make it certain that the tattooing was in vogue thousands of years ago. But the tools used to create tattoos have remained somewhat of a mystery – until now.

A team of archaeologists headed by Aaron Deter-Wolf of the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation took a closer look at some sharpened turkey bone tools recovered from Fernvale, an Archaic site from Central Tennessee, USA, occupied between at least 3500 and 1600 BC. The team identified four sharpened turkey metatarsals, two with intact points (top of image), together with smaller radius bones, which still bore traces of pigment. The researchers examined the bones under high powered microscopes at 140 times magnification and used X-ray fluorescence spectroscopy to identify the pigments.

Previously, another archaeologist had made sharpened tools from the bones of a white-tailed deer, then used them to tattoo pig skin. These experiments produced distinctive wear patterns and pigmentation deposits that were very similar to those found on the Fernvale turkey bones. Until now, the earliest tattooing tool in North America was a cactus spine from Utah dating to about 2,000 years ago. The sophisticated analysis of what initially appeared to be simple awls has extended back the date of North American tattooing for at least another 1,500 years.

Photo: turkey leg bones with sharpened tips (top) are the oldest-known tattooing tools, the two lower turkey bones were probably also used for tattooing but lack the tips for analysis.

Image: A Deter-Wolf et al. Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports 2021.

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