A 2,000 year old tattoo needle made of cactus spines discovered in Utah


A 2,000-year-old tattooing tool was discovered in Utah – the oldest artifact of this type discovered in the western United States, long before the second oldest in a millennium.

Andrew Gillreath-Brown, a doctoral candidate in the Department of Anthropology at Washington State University, discovered the pen-sized tattoo tool. He conducted an inventory of archaeological material accumulated for more than 40 years. The collection was unearthed in 1972 in the Greater Bears Ears landscape of southeastern Utah and includes ancient specimens such as hair, paleofeces, bones, charcoal and corncobs.

In organizing the collection, he noticed a bag containing an unusual artifact. There was a wooden handle surrounded by vegetable matter and two very small thorns attached to the end. "When I noticed that the ends were stained black, I felt really excited because my mind immediately thought of the tattoo," he said. Newsweek.

Gillreath-Brown and his colleagues then studied the tool. Their conclusions, which have now been published in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports, conclude that it is an early tattoo tool.

The handle of the tool was made from a skunkbush and the needle was created from two spines of prickly pear cactus. These pieces were assembled with strips of yucca leaves.

tattoo needle 2,000 year old tattoo needle discovered in Utah. Ink can be seen at the end of the cactus spine. Bob Hubner / WSU

Researchers analyzed spikes with the help of an electron microscope, X-ray and spectroscopy, while Gillreath-Brown also created a replica tool and used it to perform tests tattoo on the pork skin. The results showed that the pigment on the needles contained carbon, which is commonly used for tattooing. He added that the ink was probably made from carbon generated by the fire.

Explaining how the tool would have been used, he added, "I think it would have hurt some people. [Unlike modern tattooing] it would have been necessary to sting several times … The prickly pear cactus spines are actually very effective compared to other cacti for perforation (shown in a recent study). It would also help to keep the tattoo at a distance of two to three millimeters from the outer skin, as if the pain increased much more deeply. "

Before the discovery of this tool, the oldest tattoo needle found in western North America was an artifact of the Aztec ruins of New Mexico, dating back to 1100-1280 AD. It consisted of four cactus spines and the reed handle. The newly discovered tool dates from 500 BC. J.-C. and 500 AD

Tattooing is a form of art found in cultures around the world. We do not know how, when and why it started – but there is evidence that it has been at least 5,000 years old. The first known tattoos were found on Otzi the Iceman – a prehistoric hunter-gatherer discovered in a preserved glacier in 1991. Otzi, died around 3300 BC. BC, carried 61 tattoos, consisting of 19 groups of black lines.

Understanding the cultural practice of tattooing among the first inhabitants of the southwestern United States is particularly difficult because there are no human remains to study, nor written accounts. As a result, the discovery of this tool provides insights into these ancient people who lived in Utah 2,000 years ago.

tattoo needle 2 Close-up view of the tattoo tool. Bob Hubner / WSU

"It's very important to understand how the relationships between people were managed and how their status may have been marked at a time when population density was increasing in the southwest," Gillreath-Brown said. "Tattoos are a permanent marker that people would take with them wherever they go. This makes it very different from other body decorating and ornamenting practices.

Tattoo tool Tattoo tool in real size. Andrew Gillreath-Brown, Washington State University

In speculating, he stated that the practice of tattooing probably began at least a few generations before the creation of this tool, perhaps during the period of Basketmaker II, which began around 1500 BC.

"It is important to know the timing and occurrences of the prehistoric tattoo, that is to say. identify the earliest occurrences of tattoos because this allows us to understand the reasons for the body modification and its evolution over time, "said Gillreath-Brown. "This research also highlights tattooing tools and the importance of historically aboriginal traditions repressed after the arrival of Europe in North America.

close the tattoo tool Close up of the tattoo tool. Andrew Gillreath-Brown, Washington State University

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