Ancient Tattoos: Archaeologists find Blood and Pigments on 3,000-Year-Old Obsidian
Australian archaeologists have examined prehistoric obsidian tools from the Nanngu site in the Solomon Islands and have determined they may have been used for tattooing people. The 3,000-year-old chips of volcanic glass-like rock have residues of ochre, charcoal and blood and traces of wear that the researchers replicated by using other pieces of obsidian to make tattoos on pigskin.
The authors of a study in the Journal of Archaeological Science say because bodies decay, there is little prehistoric evidence of tattooing anywhere in the world. They cite the body of Otzi the Iceman, a naturally mummified man whose body hikers found in the European Alps in the 1990s. Otzi lived more than 5,000 years ago and had many well-preserved tattoos on his body.
Wrist tattoos on Otzi the Iceman ( radiolab.org)
“It is very difficult to trace the ancient history and geographical distribution of this practice across the globe because such excellent preservation is exceptional,” wrote Nina Kononenko and her colleagues. “Since tattooing is integral to many recent Pacific societies, it is particularly important to trace the prehistory of tattooing in relation to wider social changes. A useful approach might be to target archaeological finds of implements used for tattooing, although to date these have also been extremely rare, probably because perishable materials were often used.”
The article they wrote goes into great detail about their 26 experiments during four months in 2015 that involved fashioning obsidian tools and the conclusions they draw about the use-wear patterns from their tattooing pieces of pigskin.
“The case study reinforces the importance of the experimental results for the identification of skin modification in other parts of the world,” they wrote.
They compared the new tools they used to the ancient ones they suspected of having been used for tattooing or bloodletting in Ranngu in prehistoric times and found similar wear patterns, including rounding, blunting, chipping and scratching.
These tools, which had traces of blood, ochre and fat, were found at the Nanngu site and date to around 3,000 years ago. (Journal of Archaeological Science photo)
It’s possible the Solomon Islanders made tattoos for social, medical or ritual practices.
They say there were a few types of tattooing techniques in the islands. One was to make incisions and rub pigment into the skin. Another was to sketch the design on the skin in charcoal or ochre pigments and then make incisions. Another was to pierce the skin, either with the pigment on the point of the tool or on the skin.
Tools consisted of simple ones like those in Melanesia and the complex, multi-toothed tools of Polynesia, they wrote, adding:
Simple tattooing implements of natural plant thorns, fish spines, or pointed bones were used for skin puncture, whereas single sharp blades made of obsidian, quartz, chert or bamboo made incisions and/or punctures. Multi-toothed tattooing tools were usually made from perishable materials—typically mammal or large bird bone.
Study co-author Robin Torrence told Live Science that the English word tattoo comes from the Polynesian word tatau and that tattooing has been an important cultural practice in the Pacific islands.
A portrait of a Maori chief by Sydney Parkinson, the artist on Captain Cook’s 18 th century voyages; the Maori inhabit New Zealand, which is not far from the Solomons. ( Wikimedia Commons )
Tattoo anthropologist Lars Krutak has an article online titled The Art of Nature: Tattoo History of Western Oceania that includes a section on the Solomon Islands.
Dr. Krutak says the islanders of Western Oceania began arriving around 2000 BC from Southeast Asia. Body marking was usually done by a priestly class of men in Polynesia or women in Micronesia and Fiji. Dr. Krutak writes:
The Solomon Islands are an expansive island chain running roughly north to south that includes both Melanesian (scarification) and Polynesian (tattooing) cultural elements of body modification. Invariably, avian and ichthyian (fish) tattoo patterns seem to dominate the artistic repertoire of Solomon peoples and perhaps none more so than the frigate bird which was also used in the construction of tattooing tools here as it was in Micronesia.
More specifically, in some areas of the Solomons it was believed that the guardian of the land of the dead inspected the deceased for his or her frigate bird mark. If the deceased did not have the tattoo, they were not allowed to pass into the afterlife.
Tikopian tattoo motifs from the Solomon islands, 1930: a) Frigate bird wings; b) triangle; c) pounder or coconut frond spathe; d) annelid; e) flower of the farakau tree; f, h) shark designs; g) tooth pattern; i) large fish pattern; j, k) small fish patterns. (Image courtesy of www.larskrutak.com)
Video demonstrating traditional tattooing methods in the Philippines:
Top image: Women of Rennell Island in the Solomons, drawn by Norman H. Hardy ( Wikimedia Commons )
By Mark Miller