Oldest Tattoo Tools Found in Tonga

Last month the Matangitonga Online published an article about how a recent study of four ancient bone tattoo comb tools were found in Tonga in 1963-1964 revealed that they are the oldest in the world, and that surprisingly two of them were made from human bone.

The tattoo bones combs were radiocarbon dated and determined to be 2,700 years old, confirming that tattooing has been an important cultural practice in Polynesia. The tattoo bone combs were found on Tongatapu at the Pea Public School grounds near Fanrga’uta lagoon during an excavation by Jens Poulsen in 1963-64. The site also contained ceramics, stone tools, and shell ornaments that were typical of the Lapita culture and Polynesian Plainwares.

The multi-toothed kit (which included an ink pot when found but is now missing) is believed to be the oldest set discovered in the world.  Dr. Langley said discovering early tattooing implements is exceptionally rare. “These artifacts show that the modern tattooist toolkit- one piece narrow combs, halft, mallet, carbon pigment, mortar, pestle, and ink-holding vessel- were in use 2,700 years ago in West Polynesia.”

Dr. Langley added, “The kit most likely belonged to one tattoo artist. One tool was broken and it looks like it was being repaired, so perhaps, the kit was accidentally left behind or was too broken to bother salvaging. Perhaps, the tattooist was given a new set.”


Oldest Tattoo Tools, Photo from bgr.com

“When compared to traditional tattooing tools still used in the Pacific today, very little has altered. “The actual tool itself- the comb shape and the way it’s used- hasn’t changed much, and that’s why this find is so interesting. These ancient tools continue to be used today,” said Dr. Langley.  “So, to find an entire kit is phenomenal. We very rarely find a whole kit of any type of tools in the archaeological record.”

The study found that two of the tattoo combs were made from a large seabird and the other two from large mammals which is believed to be human. “As there were no other mammals of that size on the island at the time, and human bone is known to be a preferred material for making tattooing combs, we believe they are most likely made from human bone,” said Dr. Langley.

Dr. Langley also said tattooing combs like these are important for making the complex linear designs famous famous in Oceania. The ink found embedded in the bones would have been charcoal or plant-based. She said, “These combs are more complex than the obsidian stone flakes used in places like New Guinea 3,500 years ago- these Oceanic are part of a multi-component tool which required more effort to make and maintain.”