Once dismissed as an “odd-looking little artifact,” the tool pushes back evidence for tattooing in the U.S. Southwest by a millennium.
THE TOOL IS made from a bundle of prickly pear cactus spines, their tips saturated with dark pigment, inserted into a handle carved from lemonade sumac and bound with yucca fiber.
Some 2,000 years ago, a tattooist in what’s now southeast Utah used this tool to hand-poke a design into someone’s skin. After the point of one of the cactus spines broke off, the tool was likely tossed into a trash heap. It remained there for centuries, in a pile of bones, corncobs, and other discarded items.
Now, in a new paper in Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports, a team of archaeologists conclude that this cactus spine tool is the earliest evidence of tattooing in the Southwest.