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Archaeologists Think These Volcanic Glass Tools Were Used for Tattooing

Did ancient Pacific Islanders use volcanic glass tools for tattooing?

by Sarah Emerson
Jul 15 2016, 10:00am

Louis Choris, Danse des hommes dans les iles Sandwich, 1816, National Library of New Zealand. Image: Wikimedia Commons

Tattooing technology has come a long way from the stick-and-poke methods of old. In fact, the medical grade autoclaves and FDA approved ink found in most shops make the whole process seem almost surgical. Today, biohackers are even using hospital tools to embed RFID chips and LED lights underneath their skin.

But sometimes the old ways are the best ways, as evidenced by those who still prefer traditional tattooing methods, such as Japanese tebori, over ink guns. Modern tattoo culture owes almost everything to the body art rituals of prehistoric cultures, which have been practiced since at least Neolithic times.

Now, archaeologists believe they've found some of the most astonishing evidence of ancient tattooing in the South Pacific. According to their findings, which were recently published in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports, artifacts discovered in the Solomon Islands are theorized to be 3,000-year-old tattooing tools made from sharpened volcanic glass, or obsidian.

When analyzed under a microscope, 13 out of 15 of them possessed residue from ochre, charcoal, and even blood and fatty tissue. The tools also showed telling signs of wear and tear, such as tiny scars, striations, and blunted edges. These traits, say the study's authors, are consistent with other known tattooing tools found in the Pacific region.

Obsidian tools discovered at Nanggu, Solomon Islands. Image: Kononenko et al/Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports

"Tattooing is a very important cultural practice in the Pacific even today. In fact, the English word 'tattoo' comes from a Pacific Polynesian word: tatau," the study's co-author Robin Torrence, an archaeologist at the Australian Museum in Sydney, told LiveScience. "The research demonstrates the antiquity and significance of human body decoration by tattooing as a cultural tradition amongst the earliest settlers of Oceania."

Throughout the western Pacific—which includes Micronesia, Fiji, and the Solomon Islands where the obsidian artifacts were located—tattoos were given to signify rank and a connection to the gods, as well as for their pure aesthetic beauty. Most often, motifs were derived directly from nature, and featured stylized representations of frigate birds, shark teeth, crab legs, and seashells. Both men and women wore tattoos, and the entire process could last as long as a week.

The team of researchers from the Australian Museum, the University of Sydney, and the University of Auckland recovered the artifacts from a site called Nanggu, and originally suspected they were awls or scraping tools used on animal hides.

"However, this possible explanation faced the problem that there were extremely limited species of appropriately large animals in the tropical ecological zone that were hunted for the use of their skins," added Torrence. According to the study, at that time, the only animals that might have required skinning were possums and lizards, whose hides require little preparation or treatment.

To test their theory, the team recreated the prehistoric tools from local obsidian, using shells and pebbles as chipping devices. The researchers then tattooed ten pieces of pig skin as substitutes for human flesh, using the same piercing and cutting techniques employed by Pacific islanders.

While many different tattooing methods were used in the Pacific, such as puncturing, sewing, and scraping, the inhabitants of the Solomon Islands prefered to cut incisions into already inked skin or poke pigment-soaked tools directly into the flesh.

After tattooing, the researchers discovered the wear marks on their experimental tools were notably similar to those on the Nanggu artifacts. Alternatively, the study noted the artifacts may have also been used for medical bloodletting, although that doesn't explain the presence of ochre and charcoal residue.

But Lars Krutak, a tattoo anthropologist at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History, told Smithsonian Magazine he's skeptical about the study's conclusions. "The prehistoric people living at Nanggu most likely had a dark skin tone and red ochre would not show up well on the epidermis as a tattoo pigment. In fact, I doubt you could even see it," he said.

Regardless, archaeological remnants of tattooing in the Pacific are difficult to come by. Some of history's most famous ink—like the artwork seen on Ötzi, the mummified iceman or the frozen Ukok princess—is also immaculately preserved. The study's authors hope their research will help Pacific islanders trace the prehistory of their tattoo culture, which is still heavily practiced today.

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Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports​
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