Ancient-TattoosTattooed Rennell Island woman, Solomon Islands, and microscopic photography (inset) of obsidian tool face showing fat, ochre, and blood residues

July 10, 2016

Archaeologists recently discovered blood and pigments on 3,000-year-old obsidian tools in the Solomon Islands. Examining blood and pigment (ochre) traces preserved on a highly recognizable class of obsidian retouched artifacts from the Nanggu site (SE-SZ-8), the authors argue that these tools were used to pierce skin and may therefore have been tattooing implements involved in social, ritual and/or medical practices.

I am skeptical about their usage as tattooing tools as these artifacts could have been used to score bone tools or ritual implements that were painted with ochre. Moreover, the ethnographic record is fairly silent regarding the use of red ochre as a tattooing pigment, although cinnabar has been documented, for example, in Asian and North American tattooing traditions. Even if it was used as a tattooing pigment, I doubt red ochre would be visible because the inhabitants of Nanggu probably had very dark skin tones. However, across Melanesia and Polynesia red ochre was often applied to the body during various rituals or more practically to repel insects or insulate the body against the cold. So if these are tattooing tools, then it would make sense that ochre could infiltrate a wound that was instead becoming impregnated with a carbon-based tattooing pigment.

The paper authors draw upon comparative evidence of obsidian use in Indigenous body-marking rituals (citing Mesoamerican case studies) to support their argument, whilst also stating “but we are unaware of other evidence for puncturing [with obsidian] that might be tattooing.”

I would like to point out that the ethnographic record of tattoo from northern Japan and especially Native California is replete with “other evidence.”

Before the advent of steel in the Ainu area, razor sharp obsidian-tipped makiri (skin-cutting tattoo implements) were used, which were wound with fiber allowing only the tip of the point to protrude so as to control the depth of the incisions (Hilger 1971:152 cited in Krutak 2007:130). Moreover, the old term for tattoo in the Ainu language was anchi-piri (anchi,“obsidian”; piri, “cut”).

A short-list of California Tribes that used obsidian flakes for skin-cut tattooing is as follows (see Krutak 2014:144-145).

1) Northern Maidu (Dixon 1905:167)
2) Miwok (Barrett and Gifford 1933:224)
3) Tolowa/Dee’ni (Du Bois 1932:251)
4) Wintu (Du Bois 1935:48)
5) Yokuts (Goldschmidt 1951:385).

Nevertheless, around 1000-1100 A.D. in East Polynesia archaeological evidence suggests that a new tattooing technology and technique had emerged in the Pacific (note: certainly this technology was in place long before this time, but more ancient tools have yet to be found, namely because of poor preservation of tattoo materials in the tropical climate). It is called hand-tapping and was performed with perpendicularly hafted tools, a class of small adze-like tattooing instruments, that contained a comb of bone, pearl shell, or local thorns dipped into a carbon pigment and tapped into the skin with the use of a mallet. The method of manufacturing these combs involved utilizing stone, shell, or obsidian flakes to score the cut lines of the comb’s teeth. This technology first emerged in insular South East Asia or southeastern mainland China and spread eastward to Polynesia and Micronesia (Robitaille 2007). Today, hand-tapping continues to be practiced across the Pacific realm and points beyond.

For more information on tattooing practices in the Solomon Islands, please visit this article.

For a redux of the obsidian study please visit this post.


(1933) Samuel A. Barrett and Edward W. Gifford. Miwok Material Culture. Bulletin of the Public Museum of the City of Milwaukee 2(4):117-376.
(1905) Roland B. Dixon. The Northern Maidu. Bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History 17(3):119-346.
(1935) Cora A. Du Bois. Wintu Ethnography. University of California Publications in American Archaeology and Ethnology 36(1):1-148.
(1932) Cora A. Du Bois. “Tolowa Notes.” American Anthropologist 34(2):248-262.
(1951) Walter Goldschmidt. Nomlaki Ethnography. University of California Publications in American Archaeology and Ethnology 42(4):303-443.
(1977) Mary I. Hilger. Together with the Ainu: a Vanishing People. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.
(2014) Lars Krutak. Tattoo Traditions of Native North America: Ancient and Contemporary Expressions of Identity. Arnhem: LM Publishers.
(2012) Lars Krutak. The Tattooing Arts of Tribal Women. London: Bennett & Bloom.
(2007) Benoît Robitaille. “A Preliminary Typology of Perpendicularly Hafted Bone Tipped Tattooing Instruments: Toward a Technological History of Oceanic Tattoo.” Pp. 159-174 in Bones as Tools: Current Methods and Interpretation in Worked Bone Studies (C.G. St-Pierre and R.B. Walkers, eds.). Oxford: Archaeopress.