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Ancient Tattoos Were Done Using Volcanic Glass Tools, Scientists Find

Jul 11, 2016 04:16 AM EDT

Tattoos during prehistoric times were done using volcanic glass tools, researchers found.

According to the researchers, the 3,000-year-old tools were used for doing tattoos in the South Pacific, and these prehistoric skin-piercing tools could offer insight into ancient tattooing practices.

"Tattooing is a very important cultural practice in the Pacific even today," Robin Torrence, archaeologist at the Australian Museum in Sydney and co-author of the study, said in an interview with Live Science.

"In fact, the English word 'tattoo' comes from a Pacific Polynesian word: tatau," Torrence added.

According to the archaeologists, it is difficult to study the tattooing history as it is rare to find exceptionally preserved human remains that could be used in studying tattooing practices.

The scientists, therefore, focused instead on unearthing the tools that had been used in making the skin markings in the South Pacific, although such tools are still difficult to find as they are often made of perishable materials, the researchers said.

For the study, which was published in the Journal of Archaeological Science, the research team analyzed 15 obsidian artifacts from the site in Nanggu in the Solomon Islands.

According to the researchers, these artifacts were reshaped from obsidian flakes - which are dark-colored glass that form naturally when lava cools - in such a way that each has a short, sharp point on the edge. The tools were believed to have been used in making cloth and other items from animal skin and hide.

In 2015, the researchers performed tattoo experiments on pigskin for four months, using obsidian tools that copied the size and shape of the original artifacts found in Nanggu and charcoal and red ochre pigments.

The researchers compared the tools used in the experiment and with the Nanggu artifacts and found that both sets had similar signs of wear and tear, such as blunting, chipping and thin scratches. They also found residues of blood as well as charcoal and ochre pigments on the tools.

"The research demonstrates the antiquity and significance of human body decoration by tattooing as a cultural tradition amongst the earliest settlers of Oceania," Torrence said in a statement.

According to the researchers, the findings may help shed light on how ancient obsidian tools were being used in other places around the world.

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