As he inventoried archaeological materials in College Hall at WSU, anthropology doctoral student Andrew Gillreath-Brown pulled out a pen-sized instrument that had been tucked away for 40 years. Residue staining on the tip immediately piqued his interest.
He had chanced upon a 2,000-year-old cactus spine tattooing instrument, one that pushes back the earliest evidence of tattooing in western North America by more than a millennium.
The three-and-a-half-inch tool, with a skunkbush handle and ink residue on the end of its attached cactus spines, was made by the Ancestral Pueblo people of the Basketmaker II period in what is now southeastern Utah.
“Tattooing by prehistoric people in the Southwest is not talked about much because there has not ever been any direct evidence to substantiate it,” says Gillreath‑Brown, who wears his own sleeve tattoo of a turtle shell rattle, mastodon, water, and forest on his left arm.
No tattoos have been identified on preserved human remains and there are no ancient written accounts of the practice in the southwestern United States, so Gillreath‑Brown’s finding provides scientists a glimpse into the ancient art form.