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A 2,000 year old tattoo needle still has ink on the tip

Tattoo artifact
Andrew Gillreath-Brown
Enlarge / Tattoo artifact
Andrew Gillreath-Brown

Bub Hubner / WSU

It is a simple object the size of a modern pen: two parallel cactus spines, stained with black at the ends and ruffled with split yucca leaves, with a sumptuous sumac handle of 89 mm (3.5 inches) ). But its simplicity hides its meaning. Towards the beginning of the common era, an ancestral pueblo living in what is now southeastern Utah is tattooed in black ink. 2,000 years later, archaeologists unearthed the needle and about 40 years later, Andrew Gillreath-Brown found it in a box in a museum store, with staining ink still the tips of the cactus needles.

Gillreath-Brown studied black pigment under a scanning electron microscope to better understand its crystal structure. He then analyzed his chemical composition with X-ray fluorescence. It turned out to be rich in carbon, which is still the case for many body paints and tattoo inks used today. At 2,000 years old, this tool is the oldest tattoo instrument discovered in the West of North America. It is a clue to some of the North American prehistoric culture that archaeologists still know very little about.

Tattoos have played an important role in many cultures around the world, but anthropologists do not understand what they would like from the origins of the artistic form. This is partly because there is very little evidence left and what we can see is sometimes as enigmatic as a tattoo of a stranger may be.

Otzi, a man who died about 5,000 years ago and found mummified in an alpine glacier, wore a remarkably well-preserved set of tattoos that, depending on its location, could have been the product of a Western version of l & # 39; acupuncture. But we can not be sure, because neither Otzi nor his tattooist left us notes on their meaning. In the southwestern United States, where archaeologists have never found remains of old with preserved tattoos, we know even less about what prehistoric body art looked like, how it was made and what it meant for its owners.

Gillreath-Brown was working on the inventory of a museum collection when he came across the old tattoo tool. "Src =" https://cdn.arstechnica.net/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/194078-640x427.jpg "width =" 640 "height =" 427 "srcset =" https: //cdn.arstechnica .net / wp-content / uploads / 2019/02 / 194078-1280x854.jpg 2x
Enlarge / Gillreath-Brown was working on the inventory of a museum collection when he came across the old tattoo tool.

Bub Hubner / WSU

It seems, however, that the inhabitants of the Southwest were tattooed because the works of art on ceramics and stone walls sometimes represent human figures marked with a tattoo. Archaeologists have found some tattoo tools on sites in New Mexico and Arizona, the oldest dating from about 920 to 740 years old. We now know that they look a lot like the much older needle, Gillreath-Brown, discovered in the museum's collection, at the spine points of a cactus, and so on.

"There is little talk of tattooing among the prehistoric peoples of the Southwest, because there has never been direct evidence to prove it," Gillreath-Brown said in a statement to the press. "This tattooing tool provides us with information about the Southwest culture that we did not know before."

This is an important step forward, as so much detail about the life and culture of the ancient Pueblo people and other cultures of the southwestern United States of the same era has been lost over the centuries. passed. We know that they were hunter-gatherers until shortly before 500 BC, when they began to grow corn and adopt a more sedentary lifestyle in the pits. We know that they made baskets and painted distinctive figures and symbols on rocky outcrops around the American Southwest. But a few drops of ink at the end of a needle offer a much more personal connection with these ancient peoples.

Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports, 2019. DOI: 10.1016 / j.jasrep.2019.02.015; (About DOIs).

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