In the 1960s, four bone combs and a bottle of ink were excavated on the island of Tongatapu, the main island of Tonga, and are believed to be part of a tattoo kit that once belonged to an ancient tattoo artist. The discoveries were stored, but a fire in 2003 led people to believe they had been lost forever. Five years later, the combs were found at a different storage facility, completely intact, giving researchers the opportunity to study them, but unfortunately the bottle of ink hasn’t resurfaced. The kit is believed to be the oldest in the world, helping to date body art and give a location of origin, which is what makes it such a special find.

How old are the tools?

Mummified remains have shown that the art of tattooing goes back thousands of years, as well as being spread across many different cultures, but the details about how these tattoos were done has always remained uncertain. The ancient bone tattoo kit has provided researchers with a method of tattoo application, one that was so effective that it’s basically the same as how traditional tattoos are done today. Radiocarbon dating has shown that the combs are around 2,700 years old, which Australian researchers have said makes them the oldest of their kind ever discovered. They believe two of the combs are made from bird bone and the other two are most likely human bone. The dating of the combs pushes back the date of Polynesian tattooing to the beginning of Polynesian cultures, around 2,700 years ago.

A tattooing method that started in Tonga

Despite thousands of years passing, traces of ink have been found on the edges of the combs. The combs are named so because they resemble hair combs as they have grooved edges but were once sharp enough to push pigment into the skin when hit with a mallet. The bone combs could have been capable of doing the complex linear designs that were famous in Oceania. The researchers believe that the method of tattooing most likely started in West Polynesia, where Tonga is located, and spread further afield to other parts of Oceania. Additionally, after the 19th century, Christian missionaries banned tattooing in several parts of the Pacific, which led to many people travelling to other islands to get the tattoos that were significant to their beliefs and traditions.

A remarkable find

The researchers were Michelle Langley from Griffith University and Geoffrey Clark from Australian National University. They commented on how remarkably stable the tools had remained over such a long time, especially as they’d likely been in a fire too. They also noticed that one of the combs was broken but looked like someone had been in the process of repairing it. Their theory behind this is that it had most likely been left behind by mistake or it was too broken to salvage.

These bone combs have given a real insight into the art of tattoos thousands of years ago, showing how the tattoos would be applied. They’ve also helped to show that tattoos originated from Tonga and started around 2,700 years ago, making them a unique and valuable find.