World’s Oldest Tattoo Kit Includes Tool Made From Human Bone


Researchers rediscovered four tattooing tools from Tongatapu island in Tonga years after they were thought to be lost. Radiocarbondating revealed that the tools are actually 2,700 years old, making the find the world’s oldest known tattoo combs.

Lost Tattoo Tools

Tattooing has been a part of many cultures around the world for thousands of years, and the earliest evidence for it can typically be seen in mummified human remains. In the Pacific Islands, the body modification is done with a different type of tattoo technology using bone combs which resemble combs with grooved edges, but were sharp enough to be used as a blade.

In 1963, researchers excavated such tools on the island of Tongatapu island in Tonga, and they were stored away to be studied later on. However, a fire in 2003 burned down the building where the tools were thought to be kept, and so for a while they were thought to be already lost.

However, the tools were found intact in a different facility five years after the fire, and researchers were finally able to study it.

Oldest Known Tattoo Kit

Researchers were now able to study the bone combs, which still had residues of ink. Furthermore, one of the four bone combs was broken and looked like it was in the process of being repaired. According to researchers, this suggests that the items were probably a part of a tattoo kit that was likely the property of an ancient tattoo artist who either accidentally left it behind or decided that it was beyond repair.

Regarding the material used for the bone combs, researchers believe that two of the combs were made of bird bone, while the other two were made of the bone of a large mammal. However, since there were no large mammals of that size on the island at the time, they believe that it was likely made from human bone.

Radiocarbon dating revealed that the combs are about 2,700 years old, and together with an ink pot that was also discovered with the tools in the 1960s but has since gone missing, this find is so far the oldest known tattoo kit in the world.

The study is published in The Journal of Island & Coastal Archaeology.

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