2000-year-old artifact redefining age of tattooing in western North America

2,000 year old tattoo needle made of cactus spines discovered in Utah

Archaeologists have discovered the oldest Native tattooing artifact in western North America.

The artifact came from the very important Basket-maker II culture and is estimated to be 2000-years-old.

The tattoo tool made by the Ancestral Pueblo people, consists of a 3 ½ inch wooden skunkbush sumac handle bound at the end with split yucca leaves and holding two parallel cactus spines, stained with dark pigment at their tips.

A chemical analysis of the pigment on the tips found a residue of carbon which is often used in ancient tattooing ink.

Tattooing instrument recovered from site in the Bears Ears region. (WSU)

The artifact is about the size of a pen.

It had been sitting in storage for more than 40 years.

According to online sources, Andrew Gillreath-Brown, an anthropology Ph.D. candidate, was cataloging artifacts that were recovered from an archaeological site in the south of Utah in the Bears Ears region. These items had been unearthed in 1972 and deposited in Washington State University but not properly examined.

He is the lead author of a paper on the tattoo tool which was published in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports.

This is a close up of cactus spine tattoo tool discovered by WSU archaeologist Andrew Gillreath-Brown. Credit: Bob Hubner/WSU

The find is important because they are the “oldest tattoo artifacts in western North America” reports KEPR.tv.com.

Carbon dating shows it’s from between AD 79 and 130.

Before this tool was discovered, the oldest tattooing needle found in western North America was an artifact from Aztec Ruins in New Mexico that dates to between 1100 and 1280 A.D.

Whereas most modern tattoos are drawn with motorized machines that puncture the skin between 50 and 3,000 times per minute, the Utah relic uses more of a stick-and-poke technique.

“You would’ve held it like you would have a pen and done a series of hand poking,” Gillreath-Brown said.

When European colonialists and missionaries invaded indigenous lands in North American and beyond, they often forbade the practice of tattooing among native peoples. In many places around the world, traditional tattooing all but died out.

Researchers asked tribal elders if their ancestors had practiced tattooing. Many, including from the Zuni, Acoma and Laguna Pueblos, said yes.

Tattooing had a cultural significance and was embraced by indigenous people. However, little is known about when or why the practice began.