In 1963, four pieces of ink-stained bone were found on Tonga’s Tongatapu Island, along with an ink pot. Scientists at the time recognised them as tattooing implements but radiocarbon dating techniques were unable to pinpoint their age. Only now, 56 years later, have scientists have been able to put their age at about 2,700 years old, making them the oldest tattoo implements in the world.
Led by archaeologists Geoffrey Clark (Australian National University) and Michelle Langley (Griffith University), the team also determined that the tools had been constructed from seabird remains, as well as, surprisingly, human bones.
“As there were no other mammals of that size on the island at the time, and human bone is known to be a preferred material for making tattooing combs, we believe they are most likely made from human bone,” Dr. Langley explained to the ABC.
Associate Professor Clark also added that in the region, skulls and bones were often removed from burials, and that tattooing was potentially seen as a way to connect with deceased ancestors.
The tattoo combs were essentially blades made from sharpened bones, which were dipped in ink and pushed into the skin. Geoffrey Clark explained this “is a very specific type of technology found across Oceania.” Although he says the tools are very similar to those used today and admitted he'd been tattooed using this method. And according to him “the hammering of the bone points into your skin is a lot more painful."
The oldest evidence of tattood skin can be traced back over 5,000 years to Egyptian mummies and the Italian Otzi. However, no tools remain from these civilizations, making the Oceanian kit the oldest. Whether the use of combs began in Oceania is also debated, as the practice could have been introduced via migration.