Bradshaw Foundation - Latest News



South Pacific Islanders used obsidian for tattoos

12 Jul 2016
Share on Facebook

An article by Bob Yurka on - South Pacific Islanders may have used obsidian 3,000 years ago to make tattoos - reports new evidence of obsidian tools being crafted for use in creating tattoos approximately 3,000 years ago by South Pacific Islanders.

South Pacific Islanders use obsidian for tattoos
Obsidian artifacts (left) found at the site of Nanggu on the Solomon Islands. Image: Kononenko et al. 

In their paper published in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports, Nina Kononenko and Robin Torrence with the University of Sydney and Peter Sheppard with the University of Auckland, describe experiments they conducted using cut obsidian to create tattoos on pig skin, to help explain how and why prehistoric people used a variety of techniques to create tattoos.

Anthropologists and archaeologists have always noted the lack of evidence of tattooing in ancient peoples due to skin degeneration. Even tools used may have been made of biodegradable material such as fish bone. In this new reserach, the scientists tested the possibility of using obsidian as a tattoo tool by ancient people living in the South Pacific.

Obsidian, the researchers suggest, would have been an obvious choice, due to its sharp, glass-like features. They focused their attention on the Solomon Islands as a possible site of early tattooing activities, with its long history of tattooing and easy access to obsidian (formed as lava from a volcano cools). Moreover, obsidian artefacts have been found at a site called Nanggu and dated back approximately 3,000 years.

Article continues below

To test the possibility that the artefacts had been used to create tattoos, the researchers gathered obsidian samples from island sites, fashioned them into roughly the same shapes as the artefacts, then used them to create tattoos on pigskin. Afterwards, they compared microscopic views of the artefacts and those tools they had created and used.

The sample tools looked remarkably similar under the microscope to the artefacts; similar signs of use, such as chipping, rounding and blunting as well as thin scratches. In addition, the artefacts had traces of ochre, charcoal and blood on them. Thus, the researchers suggest their experiments offer strong evidence of obsidian tools being used by early islanders to create tattoos.

Nina Kononenko et al, 
Detecting early tattooing in the Pacific region through experimental usewear and residue analyses of obsidian tools
Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports (2016). DOI: 10.1016/j.jasrep.2016.05.041

Although tattoos have been observed on mummies dated to over 5000 years old, the generally poor preservation of human remains makes it difficult to use this type of adornment to understand how inscriptions on the body have been used to define self and social ascriptions. A potential method for detecting tattooing is to identify the tools used to make the markings. To assist recognition of tattooing tools, an extensive set of experiments was conducted in which retouched obsidian flakes bearing various pigments were used to pierce pig skin. Diagnostic use wear and residues associated with tattooing were identified. To illustrate the value of these results, traces preserved on a highly recognizable class of obsidian retouched artefacts from the Nanggu site (SE-SZ-8) in the Solomon Islands were analysed. Results indicate that these tools were used to pierce skin and may therefore have been tattooing implements involved in social, ritual and/or medical practices.


Bradshaw FoundationAboutiShopBook ReviewSite MapMailing ListDonateFacebookTwitterContact
If you have enjoyed visiting this section of the website please consider adding a link
Bradshaw Foundation © MMXI
Homepage About the Foundation Contact Us Facebook News Articles Twitter List of Research Papers Professor Stephen Oppenheimer Travel Index About the Expeditions Forthcoming Expeditions Bespoke Expeditions Enquire Practical Information History of Exploration Welcome to the iShop Film Downloads DVD's Sculpture Prints Clothing Messenger Bag eBooks INORA Downloads About iLecture Films Shipping & Handling iLectures In Conversation Video Stories Travel Films Read the reviews Privacy Policy Bradshaw Foundation Facebook Friends of the Foundation Archive Index World's Oldest Rock Art Africa Documentary Films South Africa RARI Giraffe Carvings Niger Namibia Western Central Africa Africa Paintings Gallery Tanzania The Tuareg People Tuareg Salt Caravans Gilf Kebir Birnin Kudu Rock Art Center Archive Index San Rock Art Paintings San Bushman San Rock Art Film Origins Centre Johannesburg Archive Index Arizona Baja California Baja California Film Coso Range Talking Stone Film Nevada Oregon Territory Moab, Utah Clovis First Australia Archive Index Introduction Bradshaw Paintings Kimberley Region The Unambal Hugh Brown Leif Thiele Gallery Dan Clark Grahame Walsh Bradshaws / Gwion Gwion Archive Index Introduction Origins of the British Avebury Stonehenge Sounds of Stonehenge The British Museum British Isles Megaliths Gower Peninsula Rock Art Mendip Hills Prehistory Northumberland Rock Art Red Lady of Paviland Stone Age Mammoth Abattoir Archive Index Introduction Peterborough Petroglyphs Western Canadian Rock Art Writing-On-Stone Wuikinuxv Territory Dinosaur Provincial Park Archive Index Huashan Rock Art Yinchuan Museum Rock Art Festival Field Trip Gallery Itinerant Creeds Inner Mongolia & Ningxia Vanishing Civilization Life in Rock Art (PDF) Tibet Tibet Photographs Dazu Rock Carvings Tiger Motif Archive Index Chauvet Cave Lascaux Cave Niaux Cave Cosquer Cave Rouffignac Cave Portable Art Defining Rock Art Tuc d'Audoubert Bison Dr. Jean Clottes Index UNESCO World Heritage Introduction Cave Paintings Gallery Visiting the Chauvet Cave Return to Chauvet Cave Investigating the Cave Venus & Sorcerer Werner Herzog Film Chauvet Publications India Archive Index Rock Art Central India Pachmarhi Hills India Rock Art Gallery Preservation & Education Dr. V. S. Wakankar Articles on India Rock Art Contemporary Art Middle East Archive Index Middle East Inroduction Rock Art of Iran Rock Art of Saudi Arabia United Arab Emirates Rock Art Ancient Geometry Middle East Colonisation Scandinavian Rock Art Archive Scandinavian Introduction Alta Rock Art Norway Rock Art in Finland Tanum Rock Art Sweden Thor Heyerdahl Archive Index Introduction America's Oldest Art? Pedra Furada Bolivian Rock Art Campeche Island - Brazil Checta Petroglyphs - Peru Cueva de las Manos Santa Catarina Island - Brazil Rock Art in Britain Campeche Rock Art Petroglyphs El Salvador - Corinto Cave Hand Rock Art Paintings Tibetan Rock Art United Arab Emirates Uzbekistan Yinchuan Rock Art Museum Introduction Ice Age Art Gallery Claire Artemyz Jill Cook Interview Cycladic Introduction Cycladic Gallery Introduction Geometric Signs Chart Research Methodology Geometric Signs in France Sign Types/Countries/Regions Bibliography Ancient Symbols in Rock Art Newsletter Archive Download Issues Introduction Genetic Map Professor Stephen Oppenheimer Further Reading Origins of the British BBC Documentary Origins Index Origins Overview 13 Big Questions Stanley Ambrose Homo Floresiensis Herto Skulls Homo Dmanisi Liujiang Skull Introduction Sentinels in Stone Easter Island Rock Art Birdman Cult / Motif Sea & Marine Creatures Design & Motifs Dr Georgia Lee Easter Island Map Contemporary Art Glossary Conclusion Thor Heyerdahl Introduction When & Who Built It? How Was It Built? The Area Sounds of Stonehenge Meaning of a Pyramid Pyramid Studies Pyramid Superstructure Pyramid Substructure Pyramid Preparations Pyramid Building Saqqara Nabil Swelim Temples of Malta and Gozo Research in the Caucasus The Keselo Foundation Homo Dmanisi Ancient Toolmakers Index Introduction Descent into the Cave The Decorated Caves Shamanistic Experience Spring Initiation Rites Summary Page 1 Page 2 Page 3 Page 4 Professor John P. Miller Motif: Eternal Index Banksy Han Meilin Bruce Radke Christian Tuki Gordon Ellis-Brown Site Map Search the Website Glossary of Terms & Definition Podcast on iTunes Other Websites Contact the Foundation