Taken from refuse piles, known as middens, located in the Turkey Pen site in southeastern Utah in 1972, an artifact was recently re-evaluated and concluded to be used in tattooing. The ancient instrument is comprised of two cactus spines bound with yucca leaf strips to a sumac stick. This discovery has added a millenium to the historical record of tattooing in the Americas.
In late February 2019, the findings were published in the Journal of Archaelogical Science. This news was shared by both Forbes Magazine and National Geographic in early March as it made its rounds on social media. After reading the paper, I concluded much as its writer did: without evidence of the actual tattooed skin, dating tattoos has been only speculative. However, this latest discovery demonstrated the need to examine further and more closely the tools which people used in antiquity. The tips of the prickly pear [Opuntia spp] held the clue; they were stained black from the tip to a distance where it would have achieved a maximum effective depth for implanting the pigment in the skin. Further testing with spectography revealed the pigment was carbon likely derived from charcoal mixed with water.
The original document has other enlightening information including the historical use of prickly pear and other cactus as well as mesquite in the process of tattooing. Of course, this is relative to the area and the people. While this new information changes the record of tattooing in the America’s, it still stands that Ötzi, the 5300 year old iceman, sets the record for the oldest tattoo.
Article Review by Pat Sinatra
Experimental tattooing recreates the experience of the primitive technique. The results are similar.