World's Oldest Tattooing Kit Made From Human Bone

Archaeologists have uncovered the world's oldest known tattooist's kit -- including tools made from human bone.

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

However, researchers have only now been able to determine their significance.

The kit -- which includes a narrow comb, a haft, a mallet, carbon pigment and a mortar and pestle -- has been dated to be about 2700 years old.

Image: provided

Researchers found all the instruments were made from bone -- two from a large seabird and two from large mammals.

“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 Dr Michelle Langley, from Griffith’s Australian Research Centre for Human Evolution.

An ink pot -- which was also originally discovered among the tools but is believed to have been lost in Canberra's 2003 bushfires -- completes the set, and makes it the oldest complete tattooing kit found anywhere in the world.

“The discovery of early tattooing implements is exceptionally rare,” said Dr Langley.

"So, to find an entire kit is phenomenal. We very rarely find a whole kit of any type of tools in the archaeological record."

Image: provided

The combs, which tattooists would use to etch monochromatic designs into the skin, are very similar to the tools still used in traditional tattooing in the Pacific today.

"It's as if once they innovated them or created them almost 3,000 years ago, they're like 'this works really well' and then they haven't changed anything," Dr Langley said.

Ink, likely made from charcoal or plant-based substances, is still embedded in the bones.

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The discovery sheds further light on the long-running debate about where Polynesian style tattooing first developed.

“The question has always been 'were these tools introduced to the Pacific through migration, or were they developed in Polynesia where we know tattooing has a very prominent role in society and spread from there?'" Associate Professor Geoffrey Clark of The ANU School of Culture, History & Language said.

“This discovery pushes back the date of Polynesian tattooing right back to the beginnings of Polynesian cultures."

The oldest evidence for tattooed skin goes back more than 5000 years to the age of mummies in Egypt and the Italian iceman Otzi, but the tattooing tools in these places are largely unknown.