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Researchers Believe They’ve Identified the World’s Oldest Tattoo Kit

The findings lend insight into ancient Native American inking traditions.

Tattoo bundle unearthed at Fernvale site in Williamson County, Tennessee (all images courtesy Aaron Deter-Wolf and Tanya M. Peres)

Wrapped in the skin of a canid, a cluster of sharpened turkey bones and mussel shells with traces of red pigment appears, to the untrained eye, like a random assortment of ancient tools. But archaeologists believe that this bundle, buried at least 3,600 years ago in a Late Archaic cemetery in Tennessee, may represent the world’s oldest surviving tattoo kit. Their findings lend insight into ancient Native American inking traditions.

The bundle was originally unearthed in 1985 but was only recently examined as a record of tattooing processes. The excavation site, known as Fernvale, was a Native American settlement found during a bridge replacement project in Williamson County. At the time, the Tennessee Division of Archaeology recovered the artifacts, then boxed them up and placed them in a permanent curatorial facility, where they remained in the dark for two decades.

Bone tools in the Fernvale bundle

As of 1990, the artifacts are protected under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, which stipulates that they eventually return to a tribe that claims them. In 2007, they remained in storage, and Aaron Deter-Wolf, an archaeologist with the Tennessee Division of Archaeology, and Tanya Peres, a zooarchaeologist at Florida State University, revisited and analyzed them, as Mental Floss first reported.

When the pair examined the sharp turkey bones and bivalve shells, they wondered if the artifacts could be implements in a tattoo bundle — a specific type of sacred bundle used in indigenous rituals. The sharp bones recalled needles, while pigment residue on the shells suggested that they were used as ancient inkpots. Other turkey bones that were stained appeared to be tools for mixing pigment. The whole assortment had been placed in the grave beside its occupant, suggesting that it held significant value for that individual.

“These bundles were incredible important, only held and used by certain bundle keepers who were also tattooists,” Deter-Wolf told Hyperallergic. “There were oral histories, songs, and dances that went along with the tattooing process.”

Earlier this month, Deter-Wolf and Peres presented their latest research regarding the bundle at the Society for American Archaeology’s 83rd Annual Meeting. Since 2013, when they first hypothesized that the artifacts represented a tattoo kit, they have conducted various tests to more concretely identify the tools. The archaeological record, of course, has revealed countless pointed bone implements, and researchers around the world have informally identified various tools as tattoo implements. Deter-Wolf and Peres wanted to properly evaluate the bundle to find direct, material proof.

The process largely involved examining the tips of the turkey bone implements for their wear patterns. These microscopic marks can reveal what activity a tool was for, whether to weave cloth or baskets — or, perhaps, to poke the epidermis. A study published last year by Christian Gates St-Pierre, an archaeologist at the University of Montreal, was key to understanding the markings of the Fernvale bundle: St-Pierre definitively identified the micro-wear patterns left by bone tattooing implements, which provided evidence against which Deter-Wolf and Peres compared their turkey bones. Under the microscope, the two bones they believed to be needles presented the same wear patterns St-Pierre described.

The archaeologists had identified their tattoo kit, but as far as the tattoo kit being the oldest ever — “definitely maybe,” Deter-Wolf said. They had done carbon dating tests on the freshwater shells, which might have accumulated carbon from the reservoir in which they lived. But after considering any potential offset in years, the team’s date estimate ranges between 1,600 BCE and 3,200 BCE. That would make the toolkit 600 years older than ancient obsidian pieces that were directly identified as tattooing implements in 2016. Found at a large Lapita settlement site in the Solomon Islands, the black flakes were carefully chipped and rounded for piercing, researchers found.

Deter-Wolf and Peres are now working to turn their presentation into a formal article to submit to a peer-review journal. Their research, Deter-Wolf hopes, will lead more researchers to study possible tools that created ancient tattoos, which are often the primary records of study.

“There’s very little discussion of what tools [ancient cultures] are doing tattoos with,” he said. “Archaeologically, we want to understand these cultures, but if we’re missing this entire tool type, that’s something we should address.”

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