World's oldest tattooing kit in Tonga

Polynesian tattooing dates back to the beginnings of Polynesian cultures, around 2,700 years ago.
Polynesian tattooing dates back to the beginnings of Polynesian cultures, around 2,700 years ago.

Australian researchers have uncovered the world's oldest known tattooing kit from a site in Tonga, including items believed to have been fashioned from human bone.

The intricate, multi-toothed tattooing tools were found in 1963 on Tongatapu Island, Tonga's main island.

Recent radiocarbon dating found the combs to be around 2,700 years old, making them the oldest confirmed multi-toothed tattooing implements found in Oceania, researchers from the Australian National University said on Tuesday.

ANU associate professor Geoffrey Clark said the bone tattoo combs, which have blades for driving the ink into the dermis layer of skin, are "a very specific type of technology found across Oceania".

"This discovery pushes back the date of Polynesian tattooing right back to the beginnings of Polynesian cultures around 2,700 years ago," Clark said.

Of the four tattooing combs examined, two were made from the bones of a large seabird, while the other two were made with the bones of a large land mammal, most likely human, according to the researchers.

"As there were no other mammals of that size on the island at the time, and human bone is known to be a preferred material for making tattooing combs, we believe they are most likely made from human bone," said researcher Michelle Langley from Griffith University's Australian Research Centre for Human Evolution.

Clark and Langley are the first researchers to minutely study and date the tattooing combs, which had been in ANU storage for decades.

The research was published in the Journal of Island & Coastal Archaeology this week.

Australian Associated Press