Environment An ancient tale inked in skin and bone

An ancient tale inked in skin and bone

They say every tattoo tells a story but what about the world’s oldest tattoo kit, made partially of human bone?

Work at Griffith University and The Australian National University has dated it to 2,700 years ago.

Griffith researcher Michelle Langley says it’s exceptionally rare to find a complete set of tattooing tools, let alone one that old.

“The kit most likely belonged to one tattoo artist,” she says.

“One tool was broken and it looks like it was being repaired, so perhaps the kit was accidentally left behind or was too broken to bother salvaging.

“Perhaps the tattooist was given a new set.”

One thing isn’t in much doubt: whoever it was didn’t mind working with tools made from human remains.

Analysis of the four tattoo combs found in the set, unearthed at Tongatapu, the main island of Tonga, shows they were made from the bones of a large mammal.

Since there were no other such mammals on the island at the time, they are almost certainly human.

In fact, human bone is known to have been a preferred material for tattoo combs, a kind of needle still used in traditional equipment in the Pacific.

Attached to a haft or handle, the comb soaked up ink along its sharp edge, puncturing and permanently marking the skin when tapped with a mallet. Both haft and mallet were also found with the set.

Dr Langley says recent research on the kit, first discovered in the 1960s and stored at the ANU ever since, sheds new light on how and when tattooing came to form such an integral part of Polynesian culture.

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