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The tattoo tool bundle unearthed at Fernvale, Tennessee, USA. This is the oldest tattoo toolkit discovered to date.

Turkey Bones, Shells, and Pigment: Signs of the Oldest Tattoo Kit in the World

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About 3,600 years ago, someone decided to bury a collection of sharpened turkey bones and mussel shells. The items were unearthed in 1985 and then forgotten for almost three decades. However, a couple of researchers decided to take another look at the collection a few years back, wondering if the tools were part of a medicine bundle – a sort of portable shrine once used by Native Americans. The form of the bones and traces of black and red pigment showed them a different story – one that has left a mark on the history of tattooing.

The tattoo toolkit, now recognized as the oldest example in the world, was discovered in a Late Archaic Native American cemetery in in Fernvale, Tennessee during a bridge replacement project. Once the Tennessee Division of Archaeology had recovered the artifacts, they placed them away in a curatorial facility and the kit was forgotten.

Eventually, Aaron Deter-Wolf, an archaeologist with the Tennessee Division of Archaeology, and Tanya Peres, a zooarchaeologist at Florida State University, decided it was worthwhile to take another look at the collection. As Deter-Wolf said, until they started to analyze the artifacts, “It was one of these situations where it went into a collection and nothing was done with it.”

Hyperallergic reports that Deter-Wolf and Peres were initially interested in examining the artifacts because they thought it could have been an example of a sacred bundle which indigenous people used in ritual practices. Yet the sharpened turkey bones have an uncanny resemblance to needles, and the pigment residue in the shells suggest they may have been inkpots. It didn’t take long before the pair changed their assessment – these artifacts are grave goods that were left beside an ancient tattoo artist.

Deter-Wolf provided Mental Floss  with a peek at the cultural context for the tattoo toolkit, saying,

"By the arrival of the Europeans, virtually every Native American group in the Great Plains and the Eastern Woodlands practiced tattooing. If it's something that widespread and that important, we suspect that it is very deeply rooted in Native American history."

Mohave Woman with Tattoos - 1883 – Needles, CA. (Public Domain)

Mohave Woman with Tattoos - 1883 – Needles, CA. (Public Domain)

Deter-Wolf also explained some of that significance to Hyperallergic, “These bundles were incredibly important, only held and used by certain bundle keepers who were also tattooists. There were oral histories, songs, and dances that went along with the tattooing process.”

According to Mental Floss, Peres and Deter-Wolf have been carefully studying and conducting tests on the prehistoric tattoo toolkit since 2013. They had a breakthrough when they compared the wear marks on the bone tattoo needles with results obtained by another researcher, Christian Gates St-Pierre.

St-Pierre is an archaeologist at the University of Montreal who conducted an experiment in which he tattooed pig skin with bone tools to see the marking the process would have left on prehistoric tools. When Deter-Wolf and Peres caught wind of the study they checked their artifacts under the microscope. Lucky for them, two of the needles in the kit showed the same signs of usage - a bright polish up to three millimeters (0.12 inches) from the tip. Deter-Wolf said, “At this point there's not another activity that we know of that would create that same pattern on bone tools.”

Bone tools in the Fernvale bundle. (Aaron Deter-Wolf and Tanya M. Peres)

3,600-year old turkey bone tattoo tools from the Fernvale site, Tennessee. (Aaron Deter-Wolf and Tanya M. Peres)

This is the oldest tattoo toolkit discovered to date because it surpasses the obsidian pieces found in a Lapita settlement site in the Solomon Islands in 2016 by 600 years.

Top Image: The tattoo tool bundle unearthed at Fernvale, Tennessee, USA. This is the oldest tattoo toolkit discovered to date. Source: Aaron Deter-Wolf and Tanya M. Peres

By Alicia McDermott

Alicia McDermott's picture


Alicia McDermott holds degrees in Anthropology, Psychology, and International Development Studies and has worked in various fields such as education, anthropology, and tourism. Traveling throughout Bolivia, Peru, Colombia, and Ecuador, Alicia has focused much of her research on Andean cultures... Read More

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