Whether applied as decoration, punishment, religious representation or declaration of love, tattoos have existed for over 5300 years. The earliest known tattoo was discovered on the “Iceman,” whose dots and crosses tattooed on his knees and spine were likely used to alleviate joint pain. Several female mummies were also identified in Egypt, and have been dated as far back as 2000 B.C. Needless to say, everyone from archaeologists to millennials have a fascination with all things tattoos.
In February of this year, National Geographic published the story of an “odd little artifact” that took archaeologists over a year to fully realize its purpose as a tattooing instrument. This instrument was fashioned from a bundle of prickly cactus spines, bound with yucca, and dipped into dark pigment in order to create hand-poked tattoos.
This tool has been on a rather interesting journey, from its initial use over 2000 years ago to its first discovery in 1972, when a team of archaeologists unknowingly placed it in a storage bin at Washington State University. In 2017, PhD candidate Andrew Gillreath-Brown was reviewing the collection when he noticed the unusual instrument, and knew that further exploration was necessary. Gillreath-Brown then consulted with Aaron Deter-Wolf, who pioneered the research of tattoos in relation to archaeology.
If this cactus spine bundle was, in fact, a tool used for tattooing, National Geographic claims that it would have “push[ed] back the archaeological footprint of the practice in the western United States by a full thousand years, to about 79-130 A.D.” The potential of this find caused the team to embark on a year long study of the artifact, which involved constructing exact replicas in order to tattoo pig skin, along with the use of X-rays and microscopy to confirm that the tool was used for tattooing. Their research suggested that tattooing at this time ran parallel to the shift from hunt and gather lifestyles to agricultural-based villages.
Upon confirmation of its purpose, researchers surmised that tattooing created a sense of identity and formed a group bond within these early civilizations. Comparing this ideology to contemporary tattoo culture, it's safe to say that not much has changed. According to Deter-Wolf, tattooing is still considered “deeply rooted in our symbolic being as humans” (National Geographic). Based on our experience, it's hard to disagree.