The United States' Oldest Tattoo Needle Is an Inked-Up Cactus Spine

It helps clarify the history of indigenous tattooing.

oldest cactus tattoo needle
Robert Hubner

Religious tradition in some cultures and banned in others, tattoos have been a means of expression for thousands of years. Now, an archaeological study has discovered what appears to be the oldest tattooing artifact in western North America.

Several indigenous tribes of North America carry long traditions of tattooing—English explorers were as early as the 1500s. Prior to that, finds in New Mexico have shown tattoo implements that date to between 1100 and 1280 A.D. The new discovery, which dates back to between 500 B.C. and 500 A.D, predates both of those by hundreds, if not thousands, of years.

“Tattooing by prehistoric people in the Southwest is not talked about much because there has not ever been any direct evidence to substantiate it,” says Andrew Gillreath‑Brown, an anthropology PhD candidate at Washington State University who found the implement, in a . “This tattoo tool provides us information about past Southwestern culture we did not know before.”

Gillreath‑Brown did not make his discovery in the field. Rather, he found it while taking inventory of archaeological materials sitting in storage for over 40 years.

“When I first pulled it out of the museum box and realized what it might have been I got really excited,” he says.

At 3 ½ inches long, the tool consists of a wooden skunkbush sumac handle, bound with split yucca leaves. Two parallel cactus needles, stained black, did the actual tattooing. Gillreath-Brown analyzed the tips with a scanning electron microscope, X‑ray florescence and energy dispersive ray spectroscopy. Then to confirm his suspicions, he built a replicas and drew a number of tattoos onto pig skin.

“I think it would have hurt some," Gillrearth-Brown says, speaking to Newsweek. Describing how it functioned, the method sounds somewhat similar to used today. "It would have required repeated poking… Prickly pear cactus spines are actually very efficient compared to other cacti for puncturing (shown in a recent study). It also helps that the tattooing would have stayed within two to three millimeters of the outer skin, as if it goes much deeper the pain does increase.”

Tattoo anthropologist has gone one step further: "I myself have been tattooed with a similar two-pronged thorn tool," he tells PopMech in an email, "and it is very effective as a delivery system for carbon-based tattoo pigment."

"From a technological standpoint, the tool falls into line with ethnographic descriptions of cactus thorn tattooing tools from the Southwest," says Krutak, who is currently a research associate at the Museum of International Folk Art. He also believes the person using the cactus needles was a woman . "Implements such as these enjoyed a wide distribution in historic times, and almost invariably they were utilized by female tattooists in the Southwest to mark the human body. Thus, and by extrapolation, perhaps the individual who wielded the prehistoric tattooing tool from Turkey Pen was female? I think that is a reasonable assumption. "

The find is somewhat surprising because the region that would come to make up the southwestern United States isn't as well-known for ancient tattoo cultures, as say, Alaska. No written account accompanies the find, and no previous evidence of tattooing within the culture of the time period has been discovered.

The on the North American continent dates back to between 282–405 AD, found on St. Lawrence Island, Alaska. The find could bring a reconsideration of these early culture. Krutak hopes this find's unusual setting will "encourage other researchers to thoroughly catalog existing museum collections for similarly overlooked tattooing tools."

“It has a great significance for understanding how people managed relationships and how status may have been marked on people in the past during a time when population densities were increasing in the Southwest,” Gillreath-Brown tells Newsweek. “Tattoos are a permanent marker that individuals would carry with them anywhere they went. This makes it very different from other body decoration and ornamental practices."

Tattoos have had ups and down within popular culture, but have come to be seen as less controversial over time. Researchers at MIT Media Lab have worked on a program that could give them a utility as well as aesthetic benefit—tattoos that could take health measures like pH and glucose levels.

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