Recent Discovery: Ancient Tattoo Needle

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Whether for types of punishment, adornment, religious symbols or declarations of love, tattoos have been around for a long time. The earliest known tattoo is the “Iceman” who’s dots and crosses tattoos on his knees and spine were most likely used to alleviate joint pain. And, as far back as 2000 b.c. several female mummies were identified in Egypt. Needless to say everyone from archaeologists to millennials have a fascination for all things tattoos.

National Geographic showcased the story of an “odd little artifact” that took archaeologists over a year to realize was in fact a tattooing instrument. It was made from a bundle of prickly cactus spines, bound with yucca and dipped into dark pigment for a hand poked tattoo.

This tool has been on quite an interesting journey from its use 2000 years ago (in what is now Utah) to its first discovery in 1972, when a team of archaeologists didn’t give it much thought and plopped it in a bin for storage at Washington State University. In 2017, PhD candidate Andrew Gillreath-Brown was recounting the collection and knew he had to show the tool to a former colleague, Aaron Deter-Wolf who had spearheaded tattooing research in relation to archaeology.

Long story short, if this cactus spine bundle was really used for tattooing it would “push back the archaeological footprint of the practice in the western United States by a full thousand years, to about 79-130 A.D” (National Geographic). And so the team embarked on a year long study by constructing exact replicas to tattoo pig skin as well as X-rays and microscopy, to confirm that this tool was in fact used for tattooing. Their research suggests tattooing at this time began around the same time as when people were shifting from hunt and gather lifestyles, to agriculture based villages.

It is believed that tattooing created a sense of identity and as a way to bond a group together. Sounds like not much has changed. And according to Deter-Wolf, tattooing is most likely similar to learning how to make a fire or like spoken language and is “deeply rooted in our symbolic being as humans” (National Geographic).  We have to say we agree.

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