We know people have been tattooing each other (and probably hiding it from their mums) for thousands upon thousands of years. Numerous ancient mummies have been found around the world with inked skin, some dating back as far as 5,000 years. However, it’s very rare for archaeologists to come across the tools used to actually make the tattoos.
Researchers have now come across what might be the world’s oldest tattoo kit to date: a 3,600-year-old collection of pointed turkey bones, ink-stained shells, and stone tools found buried in a Native American grave in Williamson County, Tennessee. They even discovered traces of red and black pigment on the points of the bones.
As reported by Mental Floss, the kit was first unearthed in 1985 at the Fernvale site in Tennessee but had sat unstudied in a dusty storage room for over 32 years. Aaron Deter-Wolf, an archaeologist from the Tennessee Division of Archaeology with an interest in ancient tattoos, and Tanya Peres, a zooarchaeologist at Florida State University, recently took another look at the collection of ink-stained bones and came to a new conclusion about what it really was, publishing a paper on their findings.
Just like other traditional tattoo techniques, or even stick and poke tattoos, pigment would be applied to the sharpened end of the bone and tapped against the skin, allowing the pigment-coated tip to enter the dermis layer of the skin.
"By the arrival of the Europeans, virtually every Native American group in the Great Plains and the Eastern Woodlands practiced tattooing," Deter-Wolf told Mental Floss. "If it's something that widespread and that important, we suspect that it is very deeply rooted in Native American history."
They had originally taken another look at the tools because they thought it may be an example of a sacred bundle, used by indigenous people for ritual purposes. But after examining the artifacts they were convinced it was a tattoo kit.
"What I suspect is that once we start looking at more of these things, we're going to find that tattooing is an incredibly widespread activity,” Deter-Wolf added.
A history of Native American tattooing can be found from the east coast of Canada to the Hawaiian islands. The body art was often used to identify with a certain tribe, although some communities also used them for spiritual and therapeutic practices. One account from 17th-century colonists claims an Iroquois chief, called Nero, had 60 tattoos on his thigh, each one symbolizing an enemy he had killed.
Evidence of tattooing goes back much further than this though. The oldest known tattoo belonged to Ötzi the Tyrolean Iceman, a naturally-preserved mummy found in the Alps on the Austrian-Italian border, who is believed to have got inked up somewhere between 3370 and 3100 BCE.