Specialised tools made of obsidian were used for tattooing c.3000 years ago by early Pacific societies.

Tattooing is an important ritual practiced in many current Pacific societies. Our research, employing microscopic analysis of stone artefacts from the Nanggu site in the Solomon Islands, demonstrates that carefully made tools were used to puncture skin and insert pigments from at least 3000 years ago. The discovery of early tattooing in this region is significant because the Lapita pottery makers from this site were the ancestors of modern Polynesians, among whom tattooing is an important cultural trait.

Inscribing the human body with marks through tattooing is a visible way to create and reinforce identities for many societies around the world. This ritual has been continued in modern times by many groups from the Pacific region whose elaborate tattoos are well known. Tracing the antiquity of tattooing is quite difficult in the absence of mummified human remains, because it is likely that, as at present, perishable implements made from bone or wood were often used to make these permanent markings. To help expand the possible ways for studying ancient tattooing, our team set out to see if puncturing skin created diagnostic microscopic traces on stone tools. The results of the experiments could then be compared with microscopic use-wear and residues found on artefacts recovered from archaeological excavations.

Systematic experiments were conducted in which tools made from the volcanic glass obsidian used to puncture and incise fresh pig skin, which is the closest possible analogue to human skin. The artefacts used in the experiments were copies of retouched flakes found at sites in the Solomon Islands dating to c. 3000 years ago. These tools have carefully crafted small points indicating they were used for a specific task. The tiny points (2-4 mm long) on the flakes are made by a distinctive method in which alternate flaking forms two notches that form a point in the middle. The tools were used for different lengths of time ranging from 5-120 minutes during which charcoal, ochre, and white clay pigments were pressed into the pig skin.

The experimental tools were carefully examined using magnifications in the range of 100-1000x. Distinctive patterns of wear created on the experimental tools became more visible as the tool was used for a longer period. Thin striations oriented in a diagonal direction were observed on both faces of the point as a result of the puncturing motion. Microscarring on the edge, moderate rounding, and slight to developed polish indicate the soft and pliable nature of the skin. These use traces were formed more quickly when tattooing with ochre or clay than with charcoal because of their abrasive nature. Importantly, tiny portions of all the pigments became embedded in the scars resulting from the manufacture of the notches as well as in the microscars formed during use. Additional residues consisting of pigments mixed with collagen, fatty tissues, and blood were also observed.

With the experimental results used as a model, the next step was to conduct a microscopic analysis of 15 flakes with retouched pointed tips that had been excavated at the Nanggu site in the Solomon Islands dating to c. 3000 years ago. Since well-preserved diagnostic wear patterns and residues, consisting of charcoal and ochre pigments, were observed on 13 of the tools, we propose they had been used to puncture skin, possibly for tattooing. A few tools were also used to make small incisions. Although we know the tools and pigments created permanent marks on the skin, the meaning and significance of these for the people who made them is still unknown.

Having carefully tested our methods, focusing on microscopic use-wear and residues, the next step will be to analyse a larger sample of obsidian tools from other Lapita sites in the Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu and New Caledonia, where similar pointed artefacts have been found, as this will show how widespread the practice of tattooing was among the earliest people to colonise the Remote Pacific region.

Dr. Robin Torrence
Senior Principal Research Scientist

More Information:

  • Kononenko, Nina, Torrence, Robin, 2009. Tattooing in Melanesia: local invention or Lapita introduction? Antiquity Project Gallery 83
  • Kononenko, Nina, Torrence, Robin, and Sheppard, Peter 2016. Detecting early tattooing in the Pacific region through experimental usewear and residue analyses of obsidian tools. Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports 8, 147-163.
  • Kononenko, Nina, 2012. Middle and late Holocene skin-working tools in Melanesia: Tattooing and scarification? Archaeology in Oceania 47, 14-28.
  • Sheppard, P.J., 1993. Lapita lithics: trade/exchange and technology. A view from the Reefs/Santa Cruz. Archaeology in Oceania 28, 121-137.

Read the related article from Live Science HERE