Yesterday we talked about how many historic Native American groups in the southwestern USA and California used cactus spine tattoo tools. So how old is this practice? We discovered that around 2,000 years ago, the tool seen here was used to tattoo by Basketmaker II people at the Turkey Pen site in southeastern Utah (part of the Greater Bears Ears Landscape). It measures just 9.96 cm long, and is made of a lemonade sumac twig, yucca leaf strips, and prickly pear cactus spines, which are stained black on the tips.
Turkey Pen is a large dry rockshelter, with amazing artifact preservation. Excavations in 1972 recovered materials including turkey and human coprolites (feces), plant remains, corn, human hair, bone, wood, dried fruit skins, feathers, and rope/twine, all dated around 1–200 CE. Radiocarbon dates for strata containing the tattoo tool produced a specific range of ca. 79–130 CE. The collection has been studied and curated for the last 40+ years at the Washington State University Museum of Anthropology.
I ran across this artifact in 2017 while documenting and cataloguing the Turkey Pen materials as part of my graduate studies at WSU. It had not been previously identified as a possible tattoo implement, but aroused my suspicions based on the size, shape, and pigment staining. To study the tool, I assembled a team of archaeologists with specializations in ethnobotanical (plant) remains, ancient perishable materials, ancient residues, microscopy, archaeologists who excavated the site, and also @lemurs_and_typewriters, who knows a few things about ancient tattooing. We examined the artifact using a number of different techniques, and ultimately confirmed it to be the oldest tattoo tool (so far) found in the southwestern United States.
Thanks to @computational_archaeologist for this post! Stay tuned tomorrow for more about this amazing artifact. Also, see Gillreath-Brown et al. (2019) “Redefining the age of tattooing in western North America: A 2000-year-old artifact from Utah” (http://bit.ly/UtahTattoo). Images © 2019 Andrew Gillreath-Brown. Please email andrew.d.brown @wsu.edu for permissions.