Spring 2018: By Gayle Keck.

In old Western movies, Indians were invariably depicted galloping into the scene whooping and streaked with war paint. At least one aspect of that cliché is true. Native Americans did decorate their bodies with temporary pigments. But you might be surprised to learn that they practiced a more permanent—and deeply meaningful—way of adorning their bodies: tattooing. Equally surprising is the fact that this important aspect of Native American culture was largely neglected by archaeologists.

Why that neglect? The reasons are complex. Some are cultural. “People wearing tattoos were perceived as marginal,” said Christian Gates St-Pierre, an archaeologist at the University of Montreal. “It might have looked like a non-serious topic for academics.” Tattoos were long considered to be “primitive;” they were frowned on by religious groups, and became casualties of the larger effort to erase Native American culture. According to Aaron Deter-Wolf, of the Tennessee Division of Archaeology, and Washington University anthropologist Carol Diaz-Granados, this meant that tattoo imagery wasn’t granted the same cultural value as images on pottery, shells, stone, and other media.

Even when archaeologists focus on identifying Native American tattoo tools, it’s a challenge. “There is no one single tool type,” explained Deter-Wolf. “In the ethnographic record, there’s an incredible assortment of things people say are being used to tattoo: bones, thorns, fish teeth, stone tools, bones set onto a stick, cactus spines.” Fragile botanical items would most likely have deteriorated over time, and other tools could easily be misidentified.

“Bone tattoo tools are the unwanted stepchild, the Harry Potter of the archaeological world,” added independent researcher Benoît Robitaille. “They are often just inventoried as ‘miscellaneous bone tools.'” In fact, pointed bone objects could potentially be awls, pins, pottery or weaving tools, food-processing implements, blood-letting tools—even game pieces.

Tattooing’s twenty-first century transition from tawdry to trendy has sparked interest in ancient tattoo practices; however, it turns out Native American tattoos were a far cry from an inked hula dancer who shimmies when the wearer flexes his bicep. “This is not tattooing as we know it today,” Deter-Wolf said. “It’s culturally mandated. There are rules, regulations, taboos. It’s something people aspired to. The tools themselves, the inks, and even the contexts in which these things were stored, have important cultural connotations.


Below a special exclusive video of Tattooing using replicated Deer Bone tools:

  • The examination of use wear –microscopic patterns left behind when a tool is employed for a specific task– provides archaeologists with the ability to differentiate between bone tools used to tattoo and similarly-shaped implements used for other  tasks such as processing hides. Use wear studies on bone tattoo tools have used pig skin as a proxy for human flesh. However, until recently there had been no study of possible differences in microwear created by tattooing the skin of a deceased pig, as compared to tattooing the skin of a live human. In 2016 archaeologist Aaron Deter-Wolf and colleagues created a series of deer bone tools which they used to tattoo identical patterns on both human and pig skin. Microscopic examinations of the tools before, during, and after tattooing showed that there was no discernible difference in the resulting microwear patterns, and so reaffirms the results of use wear studies using pig skin. The results of their work were published in the new volume Ancient Ink: The Archaeology of Tattooing, published January 2018. Aaron Deter-Wolf will be speaking at Northern Kentucky University on March 19: find the event at https://www.facebook.com/events/400090620440484/

Read More in our SPRING 2018 Issue of American Archaeology, Vol. 21 No. 1.             Browse Content of this Issue: Spring 2018 .

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