From Bears Ears in Utah, a 2,000-year-old tattooing tool is rediscovered

In the same week that Democrats announce they'll hold hearings to probe why Trump's Interior Department shrank Bears Ears National Monument by 85%, the internet is abuzz with this image. Archaeologists have identified this artifact as a 2000-year-old tattooing instrument, unearthed from Bears Ears in Utah.

New findings published in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports this week show that this tool, found at the ancient Native American site, is a tattoo needle fashioned from cactus spines that was created between years 137–215 CE.

The findings reveal new information about how body adornment and tattooing were practiced among indigenous people in this region.

From Redefining the age of tattooing in western North America: A 2000-year-old artifact from Utah, from archaeologist Andrew Gillreath-Brown and colleagues and published on February 28:

“We report the earliest evidence of tattooing technology in western North America through recent work on a legacy collection from the Turkey Pen site, located in southeastern Utah within the Greater Bears Ears Landscape, and curated at the Washington State University (WSU) Museum of Anthropology for 40 years. Based on morphological attributes, we identify this implement as a hafted cactus spine tattoo tool. The artifact was extracted from Layer C-4 of a well-stratified midden.

(...) A date of 1833 ± 31 RCYBP (calibrated to 176 CE [137–215 CE]) was returned on a human coprolite from the layer containing the tattoo tool. We describe rigorous and comprehensive analysis of the Turkey Pen tattoo tool, including scanning electron microscopy (SEM) analysis, portable X-ray fluorescence (pXRF), energy dispersive X-ray spectroscopy (EDX), and experimental tattooing. This find presents a heretofore-unidentified artifact type from the region during the Basketmaker II period (ca. 500 BCE – 500 CE), and thereby provides a valuable comparative example for future collections analysis, while simultaneously extending the antiquity of Native American tattooing in western North America back to the first century CE.

From David Anderson at Forbes:

The artifact consists of two prickly pear cactus spines attached to a sumac handle with a wrap of yuca leaves. The researchers’ interests in this object were piqued when they noted that the tips of the cactus spines appeared to be dyed black, thus giving it the appearance of a tattooing needle.

Appearances, however, can be deceiving, so the study’s authors developed a detailed research plan to test their hypothesis. The object was first placed under a stereomicroscope in order to examine microscopic botanical structures, which allowed for the plant species used to construct the artifact to be identified. The object was further imaged via a scanning electron microscope in order to document microscopic damage that may have resulted from the object’s original use as well as to look for possible crystalline structures that might indicate the origins of the black coloration on the cactus spine tips.

Portable X-ray florescence and energy dispersive X-ray spectroscopy were used to examine the chemical make up of the tips of the cactus needles. Together these techniques revealed that the black coloration was the result of a predominantly carbon-based pigment. The study’s authors note that ethnographic research among Native American groups living in Western North America have documented the use of carbon-based pigments for tattooing, thereby strongly suggesting that the object from Turkey Pen was indeed a tattooing needle.

How people decorate their bodies provides insight into cultural expressions of achievement, group allegiances, identity, and status. Tattooing has been hard to study in ancient societies for which we do not have tattooed mummies, which adds to the challenge of placing current body modification practices into a long-term global perspective. Historic studies document the practice of tattooing among many Indigenous North American groups. While the distribution and complexity of tattoo traditions indicate these practices predate the fifteenth century CE and arrival of Europeans, the antiquity of North American tattooing is poorly understood. During a recent inventory of legacy archaeological materials from the Turkey Pen site in southeastern Utah, we discovered a tattooing implement constructed from a sumac stem, prickly pear cactus spines, and yucca leaf strips. This artifact was recovered in 1972 from an in situ midden but, until now, remained unidentified. The tattooing artifact dates to 79–130 CE during the Basketmaker II period (ca. 500 BCE – 500 CE), predating European arrival to North America by over 1400 years. This unusual tool is the oldest Indigenous North American tattooing artifact in western North America and has implications for understanding archaeologically ephemeral body modification practices. Events such as the Neolithic Demographic Transition—which occurs in many places around the globe—may link to an increase in body modification practices as social markers, as appears to be the case for the Basketmaker II people in the southwestern United States.