Tools made from human bones make up part of the oldest tattoo kit in the world, Australian researchers said on Tuesday.
The kit, consisting of ink pot and bone “combs,” was first uncovered in 1962 on Tongatapu, Tonga’s main island — with radiocarbon dating placing them at around 2700 years old. Dr Michelle Langley from Griffith’s Australian Research Centre for Human Evolution, and Associate Professor Geoffrey Clark, from the Australian National University (ANU) recently studied the tools in depth for the very first time. “This discovery pushes back the date of Polynesian tattooing right back to the beginnings of Polynesian cultures around 2,700 years ago,” Clarke said. Studies showed that two of the four bone combs came from a type of large seabird, such as an albatross, and two came from a large mammal — as there were no other large mammals in the area at that time, the team concluded that the pieces were most likely human. “Tattooing combs like these are important for making the complex linear designs famous in Oceania,” Langley said. “These combs are more complex than the obsidian stone flakes used in places like New Guinea 3,500 years ago — these Oceanic combs are part of a multi-component tool which required more effort to make and maintain.”
The finding is the oldest “intact” tattooist kit to be uncovered anywhere in the world; however, the ink pot which was documented as part of the kit at discovery was lost during a fire in 2013. The combs themselves are the oldest to have been discovered in Oceania and hold a stunning resemblance to what is still used for tattooing on many Pacific Islands today. “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,” Langley said. “The kit most likely belonged to one tattoo artist. 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.”