Tennessee site yields oldest known American tattoo tools

Sharpened turkey leg bones may have created body art at least 3,620 years ago

Two previously unearthed turkey leg bones with sharpened tips (top) are the oldest known tattooing tools. Two other turkey bones from the same site (bottom) may also have been used for tattooing but lack tips for analysis.

A. Deter-Wolf, T.M. Peres and S. Karacic/Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports 2021

Ancient peoples fashioned many tools from bones. These included awls, needles and fish hooks. Two turkey leg bones with sharpened ends point to a more colorful use. Native Americans used them to make tattoos some 3,620 to 5,520 years ago. That’s the conclusion of a new study.

The sharpened turkey bones turned up at a dig site in Tennessee called Fernvale. Excavations in 1985 uncovered the bones in a man’s burial pit.

These pigment-stained bones are the world’s oldest known tattooing tools, says Aaron Deter-Wolf. He’s an archaeologist with the Tennessee Division of Archaeology in Nashville. The find suggests that Native American tattoo traditions in eastern North America extend back at least 1,000 years earlier than previously thought.

The oldest known tattoos belong to Ötzi the Iceman. He lived around 5,250 years ago in Europe. But researchers have yet to find any of the tools used to make his tattoos.

Deter-Wolf was part of a team that studied the bones under a microscope. Tools used to create skin designs are tough to find and recognize, he says. But two turkey-leg bones showed distinctive damage on and near their tips. The pattern looks like the wear previously seen on experimental bone tattooing tools, Deter-Wolf’s team says.

In that research, Christian Gates St-Pierre made tattooing tools out of deer bones. An anthropologist, he works at the University of Montreal in Quebec, Canada. Gates St-Pierre used his bone tools to tattoo lines in fresh slabs of pig skin. First, he coated the tips in a homemade ink of soot, water and wax. Then he made a series of punctures in the skin. Experimental tattooing left ink remnants several millimeters from the tools’ tips. The Fernvale tools showed the same pattern, only theirs are red and black pigment residues.

Other artifacts found in the same Fernvale grave suggest they may have been part of a tattoo kit. Two turkey wing bones display microscopic wear and pigment residues. Those likely resulted from applying pigment during tattooing, the scientists say. The grave also contained pigment-stained seashells. These may have held liquids into which tattooers dipped their tools.

Deter-Wolf’s team described its new research in the June Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports.

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.

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