These 2,000-Year-Old Needles, Still Sharp, Are the Oldest Tattooing Instruments Found in the Southwestern U.S.
Originally excavated in 1972, the pronged cactus-spine tool languished in storage for more than 40 years before its true purpose was recognized
A pair of cactus spines stained with black ink and bound together with yucca leaves are poised to upend the established timeline of tattooing in what is now the southwestern United States.
For National Geographic, Krista Langlois reports that the needles, unearthed by then-Washington State University graduate student Andrew Gillreath-Brown during a routine inventory check in 2017, date to between roughly 79 and 130 A.D. Prior to the identification of the 2,000-year-old spines, the region’s oldest known tattooing tools (found in present-day Arizona and New Mexico) dated to between 1100 and 1280.
Archaeologists had originally excavated the needles during a 1972 dig at the Turkey Pen site in the Greater Cedar Mesa area, but beyond describing the two-pronged tool as an “old-looking little artifact,” Langlois observes, the team gave it little thought. Consigned to storage in WSU’s archaeological department, the spines languished in a box for more than 40 years.
Gillreath-Brown, a tattoo enthusiast himself, tells Newsweek’s Hannah Osborne he was alerted to the needles’ unusual provenance by the black stains covering their tips. After recruiting several colleagues to aid in the investigation, Gillreath-Brown conducted an extensive analysis of the ancient needles, which were created by members of the Pueblo civilization. The Pueblo flourished in what is now southeastern Utah between 500 B.C. and 500 A.D., a period commonly known as the Basketmaker II era.
The team's research, newly detailed in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports, offer a new portal into the elusive Pueblo culture: As Ars Technica’s Kiona N. Smith writes, much evidence regarding the group has been lost over the centuries, leaving historians with a vague portrait of hunter-gatherers-turned-farmers who lived in pit houses, wove baskets and painted symbols on rocky outcrops across the region.
The study aimed to date the tool and identify what materials were used in its creation. To do so, Gillreath-Brown and his colleagues drew on electron microscopy, as well as X-ray fluorescence and spectroscopy imaging, to show the stains were left by a carbon-based pigment similar to the kind regularly used in tattooing across the ages.
To further confirm the spindly tool’s function, the team crafted exact replicas and used them to tattoo patterns on pig skin. The results were promising: Not only did the makeshift needles serve as viable tattooing tools, but patterns of microscopic damage seen after the test runs also matched those found on the original artifact.
Unlike certain cactus species, the prickly pear spines included in the tools are “very efficient” at puncturing. Still that's not to say getting the tattoo was a pain-free endeavor. “I think it would have hurt some,” Gillreath-Brown tells Newsweek’s Osborne, who notes that the process would have required repeated poking—as Popular Mechanics’ David Grossman points out, the spectacle was probably similar to the stick-and-poke technique common today.
Although the newly detailed needle is far from the world’s oldest—Live Science’s Laura Geggel writes that the oldest recorded tattoos belong to Ötzi the Iceman, a 5,300-year-old mummy found in the Italian Alps—it does offer researchers a convincing argument for tattooing’s prevalence during the Basketmaker II period.
Speaking with Osborne of Newsweek, Gillreath-Brown, now a doctoral candidate in WSU’s archaeology department, expressed his excitement that the research could offer new insight into body modification and how it evolved in the region. “This research," he adds, "also sheds light onto the tattoo tools, and the significance of Indigenous traditions that were historically suppressed following European arrival to North America."
As Gillreath-Brown concludes in a statement, evidence dating the prickly art form to more than 1,000 years earlier than previously believed is significant. “Tattooing by prehistoric people in the Southwest is not talked about much because there has not ever been any direct evidence to substantiate it,” he says. “This tattoo tool provides us information about past Southwestern culture we did not know before.”