Pacific News Minute: Oceania’s Oldest Tattooing Tools Trace Origins To Tonga, Samoa

Mar 7, 2019

Instruments for traditional Pacific Island tattoos: hāhau (tapping stick) made of ulei wood, moli (tattoo tool) made of wood and bone, and apu paʻu (ink bowl), made of jade
Credit Haa900 / Creative Commons CC0 1.0 / Wikimedia Commons

Scientists in Australia have dated a set of ancient tattoo chisels to the dawn of Polynesian culture, 2,700 years ago. The tools were found in Tonga Tapu, and the scientists say that suggests that tattooing began in Tonga and Samoa, and then spread to the rest of the Polynesian Triangle, including Hawaii.

Michelle Langley of Griffith University said the find was extremely rare. There weren’t that many tattoo artists to begin with, and archeologists found these four bone chisels and what was believed to be an ink pot together, which she said makes them an exceptionally rare tattoo kit. Carbon dating shows them to be 2,700 years old, which is about the time that a distinctive Polynesian culture began to emerge.

Two of the bones were from a sea bird, and two were cut from human bones. Geoffrey Clark of the Australian National University said that appears to answer an important question. At the burial sites of the first peoples to reach the Pacific, he said it’s very common to find that relatives have gone back and removed skulls and limb bones, but scientists didn’t know why. “The fact that we have human bone tattoo chisels,” Clark said, “suggests a cultural or spiritual aspect, that you’re taking the remains of your ancestors and turning them into tools.” And not just any tools, but tools to make tattoos, whose symbols transmit Polynesian culture.

Professor Langley said that, their age aside, the tattoo chisels are identical to those used to make traditional Pacific tattoos today. The chisel is dipped in ink, and hammered into the skin. The word tattoo comes from the Polynesian word “tatau” – to strike.

Professor Clark has a tattoo made the traditional way and he told Australia’s ABC “it’s more painful than a standard electric tattoo gun.”

The tattoo kit goes on display at the Australian National University later this year.