Some of the tools included in the world’s oldest tattoo kit were made from actual human bones. The kit, which was first discovered in 1962 in Tonga’s main island of Tongatapu, included an ink pot and bone combs. After radiocarbon dating was performed on the items, it was determined that they were approximately 2,700 years old. The discovery is the oldest complete tattooist kit that’s ever been found. Unfortunately, the ink pot was destroyed by a fire in 2013.
The kit, which is believed to have belonged to just one tattoo artist, contained one broken tool that looked as though it was being repaired. “Perhaps the kit was accidentally left behind or was too broken to bother salvaging,” said Dr. Michelle Langley, who is from Griffith’s Australian Research Centre for Human Evolution. She continued by saying, “Perhaps the tattooist was given a new set.”
Dr. Langley, along with Associate Professor Geoffrey Clark from the Australian National University, were the ones who recently conducted the testing on the ancient tools. Clark explained the origins of the tools by saying, “This discovery pushes back the date of Polynesian tattooing right back to the beginnings of Polynesian cultures around 2,700 years ago.”
Two of the four bone combs that were tested came from the bones of a large seabird, like an albatross, while the other two combs were created from a large mammal. Since there were no large mammals that size in that location at that time, it was determined that the bones must have been human.
Langley went into more detail about the combs, “Tattooing combs like these are important for making the complex linear designs famous in Oceania,” adding, “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 combs, which are the oldest to have ever been found in Oceania, look quite similar to what is still used today on quite a few Pacific Islands for creating tattoos. Langley weighed in by stating, “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.”
Their results have been published in The Journal of Island and Coastal Archaeology which can be read by clicking on the link. It also includes pictures of the tattooing tools.