By: Gayle Keck
The current popularity of tattooing has led archaeologists to study its importance to ancient Native Americans.
In old Western movies, Indians were invariably depicted galloping into the scene whooping and streaked with war paint. At least one aspect of that cliché is true. Native Americans did decorate their bodies with temporary pigments. But you might be surprised to learn that they practiced a more permanent—and deeply meaningful—way of adorning their bodies: tattooing. Equally surprising is the fact that this important aspect of Native American culture was largely neglected by archaeologists.
Why that neglect? The reasons are complex. Some are cultural. “People wearing tattoos were perceived as marginal,” said Christian Gates St-Pierre, an archaeologist at the University of Montreal. “It might have looked like a non-serious topic for academics.” Tattoos were long considered to be “primitive;” they were frowned on by religious groups, and became casualties of the larger effort to erase Native American culture. According to Aaron Deter-Wolf, of the Tennessee Division of Archaeology, and Washington University anthropologist Carol Diaz-Granados, this meant that tattoo imagery wasn’t granted the same cultural value as images on pottery, shells, stone, and other media.
Even when archaeologists focus on identifying Native American tattoo tools, it’s a challenge. “There is no one single tool type,” explained Deter-Wolf. “In the ethnographic record, there’s an incredible assortment of things people say are being used to tattoo: bones, thorns, fish teeth, stone tools, bones set onto a stick, cactus spines.” Fragile botanical items would most likely have deteriorated over time, and other tools could easily be misidentified.
“Bone tattoo tools are the unwanted stepchild, the Harry Potter of the archaeological world,” added independent researcher Benoît Robitaille. “They are often just inventoried as ‘miscellaneous bone tools.’” In fact, pointed bone objects could potentially be awls, pins, pottery or weaving tools, food-processing implements, blood-letting tools—even game pieces.
Tattooing’s twenty-first century transition from tawdry to trendy has sparked interest in ancient tattoo practices; however, it turns out Native American tattoos were a far cry from an inked hula dancer who shimmies when the wearer flexes his bicep. “This is not tattooing as we know it today,” Deter-Wolf said. “It’s culturally mandated. There are rules, regulations, taboos. It’s something people aspired to. The tools themselves, the inks, and even the contexts in which these things were stored, have important cultural connotations.
Below a special exclusive video of Tattooing using replicated Deer Bone tools:
Read More in the SPRING 2018 Issue of American Archaeology, Vol. 21 No. 1. Browse Content of this Issue: Spring 2018.
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Browse Articles Excerpts from American Archaeology Magazine’s last issue, WINTER 2017-18.
Originally Published: https://www.archaeologicalconservancy.org/discovering-the-archaeology-of-tattooing/