Ancient tattooing instruments are difficult to come by, let alone identify as skin-designing implements. However, recent microscopic studies of two sharpened turkey leg bones suggest that Native Americans used these objects to make tattoos between 5,520 and 3,620 years ago.
According to archaeologist Aaron Deter-Wolf of the Tennessee Division of Archaeology in Nashville and his colleagues, these pigment-stained bones are the world’s oldest documented tattooing materials. The discovery indicates that Native American tattooing dates back more than a millennium in eastern North America than previously believed (SN: 3/4/19). tzi the Iceman, who lived in Europe about 5,250 years ago,
displays the oldest recorded tattoos (SN: 1/13/16), but no techniques used to create the Iceman’s tattoos have been discovered.
The turkey bones and other components of a possible tattoo kit were discovered in a man’s burial pit at Tennessee’s Fernvale site in 1985, according to the researchers, who published their findings in the June Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports. According to Deter-team, Wolf’s the damage on and around the tips of the two turkey leg bones matches distinctive wear previously found on experimental tattooing tools made from deer bones. A series of punctures with tools with tips coated in homemade ink were used to create tattooed lines in fresh slabs of pig skin in that study.
Experimental tattooing left ink traces several millimeters from tool tips, a pattern that was also seen on the Fernvale tools with red and black pigment residues.
The scientists say that microscopic wear and pigment stains on two turkey wing bones discovered in the same Fernvale grave likely resulted from applying pigment during tattooing. Tattooers may have dipped their instruments into solutions found in pigment-stained seashells in the cemetery.