This May Be the Oldest Tattoo Kit in the World

Aaron Deter-Wolf and the Tennessee Division of Archaeology
Aaron Deter-Wolf and the Tennessee Division of Archaeology

Tattooing is an ancient art, but it has left only ephemeral traces in the archaeological record. Examples of mummies with ink-decorated skin do exist—such as Ötzi the Iceman and the Siberian Ice Maiden—but they're rare. And archaeologists are only just beginning to distinguish tattoo needles from other tools that were used for tasks like working leather or weaving baskets.

Despite those challenges, a pair of researchers thinks they've identified what could be the world's oldest tattooing toolkit: a set of pointy, ink-stained needles that were carved out of wild turkey bones and then buried in a Native American grave at least 3600 years ago.

The burial was found west of Nashville, Tennessee, at a riverside campsite called the Fernvale site, which had been used by prehistoric hunter-gatherers for centuries. The settlement was excavated to make way for a bridge in 1985, but archaeologists at the time did not fully analyze the findings. The set of bone needles, pigment-filled half-shells, and stone tools were collectively labeled a toolkit and put into storage, where they spent the next three decades.

"It was one of these situations where it went into a collection and nothing was done with it," says Aaron Deter-Wolf, an archaeologist with the Tennessee Division of Archaeology and an expert in ancient tattoos.

3600 year old tattoo needles
Aaron Deter-Wolf

Deter-Wolf teamed up with Tanya Peres, a zooarchaeologist at Florida State University, to take a fresh look at the set of artifacts. They were initially interested in the toolkit because it resembled a medicine bundle—a collection of artifacts that was bound together to act like a portable shrine in more recent Native American cultures. But after examining the objects, the researchers thought they might be dealing with a tattoo kit.

"By the arrival of the Europeans, virtually every Native American group in the Great Plains and the Eastern Woodlands practiced tattooing," Deter-Wolf tells Mental Floss. "If it's something that widespread and that important, we suspect that it is very deeply rooted in Native American history."

Their theory got a boost from another study published last year, in which Christian Gates St-Pierre, an archaeologist at the University of Montreal, tattooed pig skin with bone tools to test the wear-and-tear patterns that prehistoric tattoo needles should exhibit. He found that when it was used for tattooing, a bone needle would develop a bright polish—but only on the first 3 millimeters of the tip.

Deter-Wolf recently took those experiments one step further. He re-created one of Ötzi's tattoos on his own skin, using a bone tool and black ink to make 1500 individual punctures on his left wrist—and a permanent tattoo. 

attooing human skin using bone tools for an experimental archaeological evaluation
Aaron Deter-Wolf

Deter-Wolf and Peres said that two of the needles in the kit had the same wear-and-tear signatures that Gates found in his experiments. "At this point there's not another activity that we know of that would create that same pattern on bone tools," Deter-Wolf says.

They also found traces of red and black pigment on the tips of the tools. (They're awaiting the final results of an analysis to figure out the chemical makeup of this paint.) They presented their preliminary findings this week at the annual meeting of the Society for American Archaeology in Washington, D.C.

The toolkit is thought to be at least 3600 years old and could be even more ancient: Initial results from a radiocarbon study of shells found at the same site suggest an age of 5200 years. Either way, the tools predate a group of 3000-year-old tattooing tools made from volcanic glass that were identified in 2016 at an archaeological site on an island in the South Pacific.

King of Yamacraw and his nephew, mezzotint by John Faber the Younger
1739 messotint by John Faber the Younger of Tomo Chachi Mico, king of the Yamacraw, and his nephew Tooanahowi
© Yale University Art Gallery

While scholars know a lot about more recent Native American tattooing practices because of historical accounts and ethnographic studies after European contact, prehistoric tattooing remains more mysterious. For now it's impossible to know what kind of tattoos the Fernvale tools would have been used to create, or what meaning tattooing had for the people who lived along this Tennessee river valley during this era, called the Archaic period in North America.

"I think there has to be a whole lot more work done on Archaic lifeways in general before we can even start to parse the deeper meaning of tattooing in this period," Peres says. "We're still arguing about what they were eating and what kind of houses they living in, which are more durable things in the archaeological record."

Deter-Wolf expects archaeologists will identify more tattoo kits hiding in collections: "What I suspect is that once we start looking at more of these things, we're going to find that tattooing is an incredibly widespread activity."

Demolition of a Condemned Pennsylvania Bar Reveals 18th-Century Log Cabin

taviphoto, iStock via Getty Images
taviphoto, iStock via Getty Images

Many unusual things have been discovered in the structures of old buildings. When contractors began demolishing a bar in Washingtonville, Pennsylvania, they didn't expect to find a separate building concealed within its paneling.

The log cabin uncovered in the bar was built as far back as the 18th century, Newsweek reports. Contractors were in the process of tearing down the condemned establishment when they noticed antique, exposed beams inside the building additions. As they removed more panels, a whole log cabin began to take shape.

The structure consists of two stories and spans 1200 square feet. The beams appear to be made of ax-cut hickory wood, but beyond that, little is known about the cabin or where it came from. A borough map from 1860 depicts a larger building where the cabin would be, indicating that the first additions were built onto it more than 150 years ago. The bar built at the site has been closed for around 12 years and condemned for more than three.

Washingtonville council president Frank Dombroski says the cabin is salvageable, but taking the necessary steps to preserve it will be difficult. The community lacks the funds necessary to rehabilitate it where it stands and keep it as a historic landmark. Instead, the council has decided to disassemble the structure piece-by-piece, number and catalog it, and reconstruct it someplace else. Until then, the building in its exposed state will remain in its original location on the corner of Water and Front Streets.

[h/t Newsweek]

Ancient Human Remains Were Found During a Father-Son Bike Trip in Washington

Brothers_Art/iStock via Getty Images
Brothers_Art/iStock via Getty Images

Among the things you can expect from a leisurely bike ride with your 4-year-old son—fresh air, exercise, bonding—accidentally stumbling upon ancient human remains is not among them. Yet that’s exactly what happened to Matt Kiddle earlier this month near Port Angeles, Washington, when a spin around the area revealed a weathered skull erupting from the ground.

Kiddle was biking with his son, Ivan, along the Olympic Discovery Trail when the two came across the skull and mandible. The pair climbed off his bike and walked on to the beach for a closer look, where Kiddle also noticed a scapula, or shoulder blade. Later, another pedestrian noticed a hip bone.

Fearing they had stumbled upon a crime scene, Kiddle examined the remains and realized the bones were likely old. He called the police. A forensic archaeologist determined they’re between 500 and 1000 years old and are of Native-American origin.

"Frankly, my first reaction was, what poor individual is missing that I just found their bones, then I quickly realized they were very old and likely Native American, and some form of ancient individual," Kiddle, a physician assistant, told the Peninsula Daily News.

How did the remains manage to become visible? Parts of the Trail have crumbled due to coastal erosion, revealing below-surface discoveries like this one.

The Washington Department of Archaeological and Historic Preservation will now look to determine which tribe the deceased belonged to so the bones can be repatriated and properly laid to rest.

[h/t Smithsonian]

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