For the last four decades, a key piece in understanding the forgotten – and often erased – puzzle of indigenous North American customs and culture has lied buried in a university storage unit. What has now been found to be the oldest tattooing artifact in western North America pushes evidence of tattooing in the region back by more than 1,000 years, allowing archaeologists to see what prehistoric people’s lives might have been like.
“Western scholars have long-overlooked and undervalued the practice of tattooing among Indigenous cultures of Native North America, for whom historical tattoo traditions were integral aspects of cultural expression,” write the authors in the Journal of Archaeological Science, adding that identifying the historical and geographical scope of tattooing on the continent informs our understanding of Native American dress and body decoration practices that were “nearly erased” following European contact.
Measuring just 9 centimeters (3.5 inches) long, the tool is made of a wooden skunkbush sumac handle bound with split yucca leaves with two parallel cactus spines stained black at the ends. First found in 1972, the tool was tossed in an Ancestral Puebloan midden (essentially a prehistoric garbage pile) in what is now southeastern Utah around two millennia ago, predating European arrival to the continent by more than 1,400 years. It wasn’t until PhD candidate Andrew Gillreath-Brown was taking inventory of archaeological records in storage that the tattooing tool was rediscovered.
"When I first pulled it out of the museum box and realized what it might have been I got really excited," said Gillreath-Brown, who has a sleeve tattoo of archaeological-themed imagery, including a turtle shell rattle and mastodon, in a statement.
Tattoo pigments found at the tip of the cactus needles piqued the researcher’s interest. He analyzed the tool with a scanning electron microscope, X-ray fluorescence, and even tested its methodology on pigskin. Now, his find could help inform modern understanding of ancient cultures and the intentional modification of humans across generations.
"Tattooing by prehistoric people in the Southwest is not talked about much because there has not ever been any direct evidence to substantiate it. This tattoo tool provides us information about past Southwestern culture we did not know before,” said Gillreath-Brown.
Decorating the body "provides insight into cultural expressions of achievement, group allegiances, identity, and status," note the researchers. Tattooing has been practiced around the world for millennia, but we don’t know when or why it started.
Late 19th- and early 20th-century ethnographic accounts document tattooing in numerous Native American groups in the southwestern US and northwestern Mexico, but direct evidence of the practice extending into prehistory is limited; no tattoos have been found on precontact mummies and few tattoos have shown up in the archaeological record. Determining when it all began is important for understanding the motivations for such a cross-cultural practice.