Archaeologists discover Utah used to be cool

Since there are few ancient human remains found with preserved skin, relatively little is known about the ancient practice of tattooing. Yet it is thought to have been widespread across much of the globe. A couple of prime examples do exist, including an Iceman named Ötzi, also known as Frozen Fritz, and an Ice Maiden from Siberia known as the Ukok Princess from Siberia.

Now, joining these rare exotic examples are new findings from North American archaeologists. As it turns out, the oldest tattoo relics found to date are right here on U.S. soil in Tennessee, New Mexico, and most recently in Utah.

These ancient tattoo needles may be just the tip of the iceberg. Ancient tattoos may have been much more common than previously known. Prehistoric tattooing may have been widespread in North America, but suppressed with the arrival of Europeans.

We can only speculate on how the tattoos were used, but may have indicated a permanent rank in the tribe.

“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.”

Who knew that Utah used to be cool? At least until the white man came, right?

Example of Native American tatoo: Tomo Chachi Mico via Wikimedia Commons
Example of Native American tatoo: Tomo Chachi Mico via Wikimedia Commons

Newsweek reports that a tattoo needle at least 2,000 years old has been found in Utah, the oldest artifact of its kind found in the Western U.S. It dates to between 500 B.C. and 500 A.D. And to think, the needle was gathering dust for over 40 years in storage until Andrew Gillreath-Brown, a doctoral student from Washington State University found it while doing inventory.

“While organizing the collection, he noticed a bag with an unusual artifact. It had a wooden handle with plant material wrapped around it and two very small spines attached to the end. ‘When I noticed that the ends were stained black, I got really excited as my mind immediately thought of tattooing,’ he told Newsweek.

Gillreath-Brown and his colleagues examined the ancient tool, made of skunkbrush with a needle made from two prickly pear cactus spines held together with a yucca leaf. Studying the relic with an electron microscope, they discovered carbon inside the needles, which they suspect came from a campfire. A similar instrument was previously found in New Mexico dating to between 1100 and 120 A.D. only it had four cactus spine needles and a reed handle.

The researchers went so far as to recreate a replica of the tool and test it on pigskin. Gillreath-Brown said he suspected getting a tattoo with the tool would have been quite painful, although it could have been worse:

“I think it would have hurt some. [Unlike modern tattooing] 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.”

Last year, Andrew Gillreath-Brown Tweeted about one of the oldest tattoo kits in the world, also based on findings he made with his colleagues. The tattoo kit is from the state of Tennessee, found west of Nashville at a riverside campsite called the Fernvale site.

According to Mental Floss: The kit is “a set of pointy, ink-stained needles that were carved out of wild turkey bones and then buried in a Native American grave at least 3600 years ago.”

Like the tattoo needles making the news today, this set of bone needles, stone tools, and “pigment-filled half-shells” spent a long time in storage before researchers determined what they were. The artifacts were found in 1985 and put into storage for three decades. However, the archaeologists believe these proverbial needles in the haystack weren’t rare at all in ancient times.

“By the arrival of the Europeans, virtually every Native American group in the Great Plains and the Eastern Woodlands practiced tattooing,” Deter-Wolf tells Mental Floss. “If it’s something that widespread and that important, we suspect that it is very deeply rooted in Native American history.”

Now that they know what to look for, they think they will find many more examples of ancient tattoo artifacts.

“What I suspect is that once we start looking at more of these things, we’re going to find that tattooing is an incredibly widespread activity,” said Deter-Wolf.

Although we may not have examples of the ancient tattoos to look at, we know that Native Americans were using these tools to decorate their bodies for millennia.

More about Utah’s indigenous peoples below:

See more about Ötzi The Iceman below:

Featured image: Screenshot via YouTube

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