This May Be the Oldest Tattoo Kit in the World

Aaron Deter-Wolf and the Tennessee Division of Archaeology
Aaron Deter-Wolf and the Tennessee Division of Archaeology

Tattooing is an ancient art, but it has left only ephemeral traces in the archaeological record. Examples of mummies with ink-decorated skin do exist—such as Ötzi the Iceman and the Siberian Ice Maiden—but they're rare. And archaeologists are only just beginning to distinguish tattoo needles from other tools that were used for tasks like working leather or weaving baskets.

Despite those challenges, a pair of researchers thinks they've identified what could be the world's oldest tattooing toolkit: a set of pointy, ink-stained needles that were carved out of wild turkey bones and then buried in a Native American grave at least 3600 years ago.

The burial was found west of Nashville, Tennessee, at a riverside campsite called the Fernvale site, which had been used by prehistoric hunter-gatherers for centuries. The settlement was excavated to make way for a bridge in 1985, but archaeologists at the time did not fully analyze the findings. The set of bone needles, pigment-filled half-shells, and stone tools were collectively labeled a toolkit and put into storage, where they spent the next three decades.

"It was one of these situations where it went into a collection and nothing was done with it," says Aaron Deter-Wolf, an archaeologist with the Tennessee Division of Archaeology and an expert in ancient tattoos.

3600 year old tattoo needles
Aaron Deter-Wolf

Deter-Wolf teamed up with Tanya Peres, a zooarchaeologist at Florida State University, to take a fresh look at the set of artifacts. They were initially interested in the toolkit because it resembled a medicine bundle—a collection of artifacts that was bound together to act like a portable shrine in more recent Native American cultures. But after examining the objects, the researchers thought they might be dealing with a tattoo kit.

"By the arrival of the Europeans, virtually every Native American group in the Great Plains and the Eastern Woodlands practiced tattooing," Deter-Wolf tells Mental Floss. "If it's something that widespread and that important, we suspect that it is very deeply rooted in Native American history."

Their theory got a boost from another study published last year, in which Christian Gates St-Pierre, an archaeologist at the University of Montreal, tattooed pig skin with bone tools to test the wear-and-tear patterns that prehistoric tattoo needles should exhibit. He found that when it was used for tattooing, a bone needle would develop a bright polish—but only on the first 3 millimeters of the tip.

Deter-Wolf recently took those experiments one step further. He re-created one of Ötzi's tattoos on his own skin, using a bone tool and black ink to make 1500 individual punctures on his left wrist—and a permanent tattoo. 

attooing human skin using bone tools for an experimental archaeological evaluation
Aaron Deter-Wolf

Deter-Wolf and Peres said that two of the needles in the kit had the same wear-and-tear signatures that Gates found in his experiments. "At this point there's not another activity that we know of that would create that same pattern on bone tools," Deter-Wolf says.

They also found traces of red and black pigment on the tips of the tools. (They're awaiting the final results of an analysis to figure out the chemical makeup of this paint.) They presented their preliminary findings this week at the annual meeting of the Society for American Archaeology in Washington, D.C.

The toolkit is thought to be at least 3600 years old and could be even more ancient: Initial results from a radiocarbon study of shells found at the same site suggest an age of 5200 years. Either way, the tools predate a group of 3000-year-old tattooing tools made from volcanic glass that were identified in 2016 at an archaeological site on an island in the South Pacific.

King of Yamacraw and his nephew, mezzotint by John Faber the Younger
1739 messotint by John Faber the Younger of Tomo Chachi Mico, king of the Yamacraw, and his nephew Tooanahowi
© Yale University Art Gallery

While scholars know a lot about more recent Native American tattooing practices because of historical accounts and ethnographic studies after European contact, prehistoric tattooing remains more mysterious. For now it's impossible to know what kind of tattoos the Fernvale tools would have been used to create, or what meaning tattooing had for the people who lived along this Tennessee river valley during this era, called the Archaic period in North America.

"I think there has to be a whole lot more work done on Archaic lifeways in general before we can even start to parse the deeper meaning of tattooing in this period," Peres says. "We're still arguing about what they were eating and what kind of houses they living in, which are more durable things in the archaeological record."

Deter-Wolf expects archaeologists will identify more tattoo kits hiding in collections: "What I suspect is that once we start looking at more of these things, we're going to find that tattooing is an incredibly widespread activity."

The Fossil of a Human-Sized Penguin Has Been Unearthed in New Zealand

DurkTalsma/iStock via Getty Images
DurkTalsma/iStock via Getty Images

Penguins are known for looking cute and cuddly, but if the monster penguins of the Paleocene epoch were still around today, they might have developed a different reputation. As The Guardian reports, the fossil of a new species of one of these giant prehistoric penguins was recently discovered in New Zealand, and scientists say it would have gone head-to-head with many adult humans.

The bird, dubbed Crossvallia waiparensis, stood about 5 feet 3 inches tall and weighed about 175 pounds. For comparison, emperor penguins weigh up to 88 pounds and can reach 3 feet 8 inches in height. The prehistoric bird waddled the Earth some time between 66 and 56 million years ago—shortly after the mass extinction event that wiped out the dinosaurs and marine reptiles, which were probably its main predators.

An amateur paleontologist named Leigh Love discovered the creature's fossilized leg bones on New Zealand's South Island. From those fossils alone, a team of scientists from the Canterbury Museum in New Zealand and the Senckenberg natural history museum in Germany were able to estimate the penguin's height and weight and determine that it belonged to a previously undiscovered species. The large leg bones also indicate that the animal was more reliant on its feet for paddling through the water than the penguins of today.

Crossvallia waiparensis is massive by today's penguin standards, but it's not even the largest prehistoric penguin that we know of. When carnivorous reptiles began disappearing from the world's oceans, the waters opened up for new predators like penguins to flourish. Kumimanu biceae is estimated to have weighed about 223 pounds; Palaeeudyptes klekowskii may have weighed 253 pounds and stretched 6 feet 5 inches long.

[h/t The Guardian]

Scientists Are Creating a 3D Model of an 18th-Century ‘Vampire Witch’ Who Was Tortured to Death

Tonkovic/iStock via Getty Images
Tonkovic/iStock via Getty Images

In 2014, archaeologists uncovered a skeleton in Kamień Pomorski, Poland, with a brick wedged in its mouth and stakes driven through its legs. They believed the man was put to death in the 18th century because townspeople thought he was a vampire.

Now, genetic and forensic analysis has shown that the vampire burial site didn't contain a man at all: It was a 5-foot-6-inch, blue-eyed, blonde woman who was at least 65 years old when she died. Newsweek reports that scientists at the Pomeranian Medical University in Szczecin, Poland are now making a 3D computer model of the woman’s skull, which they plan to use to recreate what her face looked like.

The Forensics Genetics Unit at the university will then build her face on a physical model from layers of plastic material and reveal it to the public within the next few months. Andrzej Ossowski, the head of the unit, told the website Science in Poland that he hopes a museum might display the rendering. “We want to show that with the help of modern methods, we are able to replace skeletons that are very common in museums with 3D models based on research,” he said.

He said that townspeople may have killed the woman because they thought she was a witch, and they gave her an “anti-vampiric” burial to prevent her from rising from her grave à la Nosferatu. The brick in her mouth was meant to weigh her down—in other burials a sickle might have been placed across the neck of the body, which would slit the revenant's throat should it try to rise.

We often think of Salem when it comes to witch trials, but they were common throughout Europe before the 19th century, and archaeologists have discovered “anti-vampiric” graves in Poland, Bulgaria, and Italy. Wondering if you might have qualified as a witch during the 17th-century period of Puritan paranoia? Find out here.

[h/t Newsweek]

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