The tool is made up of a bundle of prickly pear cactus, their tips being saturated with dark pigment, inserted into a handle carved in sumac with lemonade and bound with fiber of yucca.
Some 2,000 years ago, a tattoo artist from southeastern Utah used this tool to insert a pattern into someone's skin. After breaking the tip of one of the cactus spines, the tool was probably thrown in the trash. He stayed there for centuries, in a pile of bones, corncobs and other discarded objects.
Now, in a new document in Journal of Archaeological Science: ReportsA team of archaeologists concluded that this cactus spine tool was the oldest tattoo evidence in the Southwest.
The tattoo tool has had an interesting journey since being discarded two millennia ago. In 1972, a team of archaeologists searched the rubbish heap at the pen site of Turkey, in the Cedar Mesa area. Without worrying about the "weird-looking little artifact," as an archaeologist later called it, the team packed hundreds of items from the site into boxes for storage at Washington State University. .
Andrew Gillreath-Brown was in the process of drawing up the inventory of the collection in 2017 when he came across the Cactus-Spine tool. The doctoral candidate from Washington State, who had previously worked as a volunteer with the Tennessee Archeology Division, knew a prehistoric archaeologist, Aaron Deter-Wolf, who had pioneered tattoo archeology research. Gillreath-Brown sent a text to his former colleague: "I saw this thing and I think it could be a tattoo tool."
Deter-Wolf was blown away. If the bundle of cactus spines had actually been used for tattooing, this would reduce the archaeological footprint of the practice in the western United States to a thousand years, at about 79-130 AD has also been identified by Deter-Wolf, but the research is not yet published.)
It would also help researchers to assemble a fledgling picture of the time – and the reason – for which cultures around the world have adopted tattooing, a widely practiced art that has almost disappeared under European colonialism.
Thus, Deter-Wolf, Gillreath-Brown and a handful of other researchers have embarked on a year-long effort to confirm the purpose of this tool. In addition to microscopy and X-ray analysis, Gillreath-Brown has reconstructed the exact replicas of the tool and used them to tattoo pig skin. When he compared the wear patterns of the cactus spines with the replica tools with the original scanning electron microscope, they were remarkably similar.
The art of this Southwestern era, known as the Basketmaker II period, represents people with a body decoration, but until now, it was not clear if the marks represented body painting, scarification or tattooing.
"This is an interesting discovery made important and meaningful by the systematic analysis that convincingly shows that it was used for tattooing nearly two millennia ago," says Michelle Hegmon, archaeologist at the University of Arizona , who did not participate in this study. "This understanding, in turn, is important to our understanding of social identity" among the Puebloan ancestor people, whose descendants still live in southwestern Amerindian tribes.
Here and around the world, people seem to have adopted tattoos at about the same time as they were adopting an agriculture-based way of life. In the south-west, the ancestral Puebloans abandoned their hunting and gathering habits to settle in semi-permanent villages and cultivate maize. The climate was warming and human populations were growing. Deter-Wolf believes that tattoos may have helped to create a sense of identity in the face of so much upheaval.
"When you live away from these new people with whom you are not connected, you have to come up with elements that will create strong bonds between group members," he says. At the same time, tattoos may have been used to assert an individual identity, marking its ancestral lineage or specific achievements. "It's kind of keeping your personal story while at the same time creating cohesion for the whole group," says Deter-Wolf.
When European colonialists and missionaries invaded indigenous lands in North America and beyond, they often banned tattooing among indigenous peoples. In many parts of the world, traditional tattooing has virtually disappeared. Even Western archaeologists of the twentieth century have largely ignored the evidence of this practice, perhaps because of misconceptions that the tattoo was "wild" or was practiced only by marginalized subcultures.
The only evidence of traditional tattooing that seems to have survived among modern Pueblo comes from anthropological surveys conducted in the mid-twentieth century. The researchers asked the elders of the tribe if their ancestors had tattooed. Many, including Zuni, Acoma and Laguna Pueblos, said yes.
Dan Simplicio Jr., a member of Zuni Pueblo and a specialist in culture at the Crow Canyon archaeological center in Colorado, says the idea that his ancestors practice tattooing is not surprising. There is a word in the language Zuni –dopdo'gna– this translates as "pricking with a needle", and the word "needle" can also refer to cactus or yucca spines.
Simplicio warns that a single tool does not provide enough evidence to confirm how the tattoo used by Ancestral Puebloans, or what designs they could have drawn. Nevertheless, there is enough common ground between the other indigenous cultures of the continent to speculate. Many Native American tribes have incorporated tattoos into the ceremonies of the passage to adulthood or to exploit spiritual power, especially among women. The tattoos of the chin, lining the lines of a woman's lower lip, were once prevalent in the Americas, and Deter-Wolf thinks that it is very likely that the Pueblo's ancestor women also wore them.
While archaeologists pay more attention to tattooing, Deter-Wolf thinks more tools will appear, thus providing a more complete picture of humans' persistent propensity to ink our bodies. "I personally think that the tattoo is probably as old as humanity," he says. "Probably, if we had the ability to chase that thing back, it would be one of those things like the spoken language, or know how to make fire, it's incredibly deep rooted in our symbolic being as it is." ;human."