- Scientists have uncovered what is among the oldest tattooing kits in the archaeological record on the Pacific island nation of Tonga.
- Consisting of four bone ‘combs’ – thin blades with rows of teeth that drove the ink into a person’s skin – a new study shows that the tattoo kit is 2,700 years old.
- Two of the combs are made from the bones of a sea bird, and the other two are probably human bones.
- The archaeologists said that could mean people were tattooed by tools made from the bones of their relatives.
If you were to walk into a tattoo parlor today, you’d probably find your artist sporting a collection of different tattoo machines.
Most machines are powered by an electric motor, and some by air pressure, but in each case the tattoo tool drives a needle dipped in pigment into your skin 2,000-3,000 times per second.
But thousands of years ago, a lack of electricity meant tattoo artists had to utilise different tools to get the job done.
Now, scientists have found what they believe is one of the oldest tattooing toolkits in the archaeological record. A new study shows that four bone ‘combs’ found on the island of Tongatapu, Tonga, are over 2,700 years old.
The combs – which drove ink into the skin – were carved from the bones of sea birds and, the study authors think, other humans.
The earliest evidence of tattooing was found on 5,000-year-old mummies
The earliest indisputable evidence for tattooing are mummified remains. The oldest tattoos in the world were found on ancient Egyptian mummies with tiny designs inked onto their biceps. Another 5,300-year-old mummy, “Ötzi the Iceman” was found in the Italians Alps, with tattoos adorning his ribcage.
But tools have not been found that are associated with those tattoos.
But on hot and humid Pacific islands like Tonga, mummified remains are few and far between, which means researchers have to turn to identifying the tools used to ink tattoos, rather than tattoos themselves, to trace the art form’s long history in the region.
The study authors said thus far the oldest surviving tattooing tools ever found were sharp flakes made of volcanic glass, called obsidian, used by the people of Papua New Guinea.
‘Oldest confirmed’ tattooing tools in the world
These four bone combs were originally excavated in Tonga in 1963, and then placed in storage at the Australian National University in Canberra. After they were found intact – having survived a fire at the storage facility – archaeologists decide to determine how old these tools really were.
Carbon-dating confirmed that the artifacts were roughly 2,700 years old.
[They] “are the oldest confirmed multi-toothed tattooing tools in Polynesia, and to our knowledge, the world,” the study authors, Geoffrey Clark from Australian National University and Michelle Langeley from Griffith University, wrote in the paper.
Clark and Langley think that combs 1 and 3 are carved from bird bones, while combs 2 and 4 are made from human bones.
“Tattoo combs made from human bone could mean that people were permanently marked by tools made from the bones of their relatives – a way of combining memory and identity in their artwork,” the duo wrote in an accompanying piece in The Conversation.
Ancient Polynesians used the combs by dipping the tool in a container filled with a pigment, then striking the comb handle with a light mallet to drive the comb points into the skin, much like tattoo machines today. According to the authors, the combs were originally found alongside a small pot likely containing tattooing ink.
In an accompanying video, Langley explained that this discovery implies this type of tattooing may have started in Tonga millennia ago, spread across the Pacific, and remains the same today.
“If people get traditional Pacific tattoos, it’s exactly the same tool,” Langley said.
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