Ancient Tattooing Kit Made From Human Bones Is Oldest Ever Discovered

Tonga dancer
A Tongan dancer performs at Edinburgh Castle Esplanade on August 6, 2009, in Edinburgh, Scotland. Archaeologists have found the world's oldest known tattoo kit on Tongatapu Island, Tonga’s main island. Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

Archaeologists believe tools dating back almost 3,000 years—including a comb thought to have been carved out of human bone—make up the world's oldest known complete tattoo artist's kit.

In 1963, researchers found four tattoo combs and an ink pot on Tongatapu, the main island of oceanic Polynesia, which consists of more than 170 islands dotting the South Pacific. Now, radio-carbon dating has revealed the tools to be about 2,700 years old. That makes the equipment the oldest to be found in Oceania and the world's oldest complete tattoo kit, although the ink pot is currently missing following a 2003 bushfire.

And while two of the tools were created from the bones of a large sea bird, tests suggest the others were made using the remains of large mammals, possibly humans.

Michelle Langley, of Griffith's Australian Research Center for Human Evolution, said in a statement: "As there were no other mammals of that size on the island at the time, and human bone is known to be a preferred material for making tattooing combs, we believe they are most likely made from human bone."

She described finding an entire kit as "phenomenal," adding: "We very rarely find a whole kit of any type of tools in the archeological record," she said.

Tattooists used these combs to etch the monochromatic designs the Oceanic region is known for into a person's skin. Such tattoos are an important part of indigenous culture in the Pacific, Langley explained.

"When Christian missionaries came through and banned tattooing on certain islands, people would travel to other islands to get their tattoos as they represented important aspects of their beliefs and traditions," she said.

The team believes one artist owned the kit, and appeared to be in the process of repairing a broken piece.

"Perhaps the kit was accidentally left behind or was too broken to bother salvaging," suggested Langley. "Perhaps the tattooist was given a new set.

"The actual tool itself—the comb shape and the way it's used—hasn't changed much, and that's why this find is so interesting. These ancient tools continue to be used today," she said.

The results were published in The Journal of Island and Coastal Archaeology. Researchers have long struggled to paint a picture of how tattooing developed in the Oceanic region, because few haft bone combs have been found in early archeological sites, the authors wrote. The team studied the kit to determine whether the movement of people during the Neolithic period took bone comb tattooing to the Pacific around 3,000 years ago, or if the tools were developed in West Polynesia from where they spread.

The authors concluded that angle-hafted bones were used in Polynesia around 2,700 years ago, and likely originated from West Polynesia.

Geoffrey Clark, associate professor of the Australian National University School of Culture, History and Language said in a statement: "These bone tattoo combs are a very specific type of technology found across Oceania.

"The question has always been were these tools introduced to the Pacific through migration, or were they developed in Polynesia where we know tattooing has a very prominent role in society and spread from there.

"This discovery pushes back the date of Polynesian tattooing right back to the beginnings of Polynesian cultures around 2,700 years ago."

Last month, a separate team of researchers at Washington State University published a study detailing the oldest tattooing artifact found in western North America.

Dating back 2,000 years, the tool, discovered in southeastern Utah, was fashioned out of a skunk-brush handle and a tip of cactus spine. The findings were published in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports.