Search - School / College / Institute

Oldest Tattoo Tool in Western North America

The archaeologists of Washington State University have discovered the oldest tattooing artifact in western North America. With a skunkbush handle and a business end of cactus-spine, this one of the oldest tools was crafted around 2,000 years ago by the Ancestral Pueblo people of the Basketmaker II period in what is now southeastern Utah.

An anthropology Ph.D. candidate, Andrew Gillreath-Brown, played a chance upon the pen-sized instrument while taking an inventory of archaeological materials which had been sitting in storage for more than 40 years.

According to reports, he is the lead author of a paper on the tattoo tool which was published today in the Journal of Archaeological Science. His discovery takes us back to the earliest evidence of tattooing in western North America by more than a millennium and provides scientists a rare glimpse into the lives of a prehistoric people whose culture and customes have largely been forgotten by all.

Gillreath-Brown, 33, said that tattooing by prehistoric people in the Southwest is not talked about much as there has not ever been any direct evidence to substantiate it. He added that this tattoo tool provides us information about past Southwestern culture they did not know before.

Tattooing is an art form and mode of expression which is common to many indigenous cultures worldwide. However, very less is known about when or why the practice initiated. This is specificaally the case in places like the southwestern United States. In these places, no tattoos have been identified on preserved human remains. Also, there are no ancient written accounts of the practice. Instead, archaeologists are completely dependent on visual depictions in ancient artwork and the identification of tattoo implements for tracing the origins of tattooing in the region.

Earlier, bundled and hafted, or handled, tools of cactus spine tattoo from Arizona and New Mexico offered the top archaeological examples of early tattoo implements from the Southwest. The earliest of these have been dated to between AD 1100-1280. So when Gillreath-Brown came across a very similar looking implement from a site in Utah which is 1,000 years older, he knew he had found something special.


By: Preeti Narula