Evidence of what may have been one of the world’s first tattoo parlours – dating back 2,000 years – have been discovered.
Archaeologists unearthed the oldest tattooing artifact in North America.
With a handle of skunkbush and a cactus-spine business end, the tool was made around 2,000 years ago by the Ancestral Pueblo people in what is now south eastern Utah.
Andrew Gillreath-Brown, an anthropology PhD candidate at Washington State University, chanced upon the pen-sized instrument while taking an inventory of archaeological materials that had been sitting in storage for more than 40 years.
His discovery pushes back the earliest evidence of tattooing in western North America by more than 1,000 years and gives scientists a rare glimpse into the lives of a prehistoric people whose customs and culture have largely been forgotten.
Study lead author Mr Gillreath-Brown, 33, said: “Tattooing by prehistoric people in the South West 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 South Western culture we did not know before.”
Tattooing is common among many indigenous cultures worldwide.
But little is known about when or why the practice began.
In the south western United States, no tattoos have been identified on preserved human remains, and there are no ancient written accounts of the practice.
Instead, archaeologists have relied on visual depictions in ancient artwork and the identification of tattoo implements to trace the origins of tattooing in the region.
Previously, bundled and hafted, or handled, cactus spine tattoo tools from Arizona and New Mexico provided the best archaeological examples of early tattoo implements from the region. The earliest were dated to between 1100 and 1280AD.
When Mr Gillreath-Brown came across a very similar looking implement from a site in Utah that is 1,000 years older, he knew he had found something special.
Mr Gillreath-Brown, who himself has a large sleeve tattoo on his left arm, said: “When I first pulled it out of the museum box and realised what it might have been I got really excited.”
The tool consists of a 3.5 inch wooden skunkbush sumac handle bound at the end with split yucca leaves and holding two parallel cactus spines, stained black at their tips.
Mr Gillreath-Brown said: “The residue staining from tattoo pigments on the tip was what immediately piqued my interest as being possibly a tattoo tool.”
He analysed the tips with a scanning electron microscope, X-ray florescence and energy dispersive ray spectroscopy. He also did several test tattoos using a replica on pig skin.
He saw the crystalline structure of pigment and determined it likely contained carbon, a common element in body painting and tattooing.
Mr Gillreath-Brown added: “The find has a great significance for understanding how people managed relationships and how status may have been marked on people in the past during a time when population densities were increasing in the South West.”
The findings were published in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports.