In 1963, scientists found a group of four tattoo combs and an ink pot on oceanic Polynesia’s Tongatapu island. The island is one of 170 found within the South Pacific. Carbon dating has revealed the tool kit is 2,700 years old, making it the oldest complete tattoo kit found to date.
Sadly, the inkpot was lost in 2003 during a bushfire. Two of the tattoo tools were created from animal bones, most likely a sea bird. Testing on the other two tools concludes that they were fashioned from the bones of larger mammals, quite possibly humans.
Griffith’s Australian Research Center for Human Evolution weighed in for an interview. The foundation’s Michelle Langley explained the theory that the bones were human: “As there were no other mammals of that size on the island at the time, and human bone is known to be a preferred material for making tattooing combs, we believe they are most likely made from human bone.”
Michelle excitedly claims the kit is a phenomenal discovery, adding that it is very rare to find any kind of complete tool kit in the archeological record.
The tool kit was used by the indigenous peoples of the Pacific’s Oceanic region to etch monochromatic designs on their skin. These tattoos hold a high place in these peoples’ culture. Michelle describes the importance of the tattoos: “When Christian missionaries came through and banned tattooing on certain islands, people would travel to other islands to get their tattoos as they represented important aspects of their beliefs and traditions.”
Amazingly, the kit seemed to be owned by one tattoo artist who seemed to have been repairing a broken tool in the kit. It has been theorized that the artist received a new kit because this one was too broken to be repaired. It might be that the tattoo kit was left behind by accident.
The tattoo kit might be nearly 3000 years old, but the toolkit is largely unchanged. The same tools and techniques are used even today.
The Journal of Island and Coastal Archaeology released the findings, stating that the kit answers many questions about the art of tattooing in the Neolithic period. Very few haft bone tattoo combs have been found in archaeologist digs.
Researchers hope to find a new understanding of the movement of bone comb tattooing, and whether it spread with the expansion of people or was developed in West Polynesia. Scientists reached the conclusion that these angle-hafted bone combs were of West Polynesia origin, and first used in Polynesia 2700 years ago.
These conclusions were explained by associate professor Geoffrey Clark, from the Australian National University School of Culture, History, and Language, in this statement: “These bone tattoo combs are a very specific type of technology found across Oceania.
The question has always been whether these tools were introduced to the Pacific through migration or were they developed in Polynesia where we know tattooing has a very prominent role in society and spread from there. This discovery pushes back the date of Polynesian tattooing right back to the beginnings of Polynesian cultures around 2,700 years ago.”
A team of researchers in North America had found an unrelated tattoo tool in southeastern Utah earlier this year. Dating back 2000 years in the past, the tool was the oldest to be found in North America and was made from the tip of a cactus spine attached to a skunk-brush handle.