Unfortunately, we don’t know where or when the practice of tattooing originated. That’s because the archaeological record is incomplete when it comes to what humans have done with their skins. While fossilized bones may survive for thousands of years, human skin is preserved only in very special circumstances.
What, then, can we say about the earliest appearance of evidence for tattooing? The evidence is entirely circumstantial and completely unclear — but let’s not let that stop us. The earliest evidence comes from an Upper Paleolithic cave, approximately 12,000 years old, excavated in the Pyrenees Mountains of Southern France, know as the Grottes du Mas d’Azil (or Cave of the Azil Farmhouse).
It was Edouard Piette (1827-1906), French geologist turned prehistorian, who first excavated at Mas d’Azil in 1885, uncovering some beautiful examples of Paleolithic craftsmanship like the item at left. Piette was interested in better understanding the different time periods that are present in the many layers of the site and also in showing that the domestication of animals (reindeer actually) was taking place during the Paleolithic.
Fun fact: Paleolithic quite literally means “Old Stone” age. The Lower Paleolithic is the older half of the Paleolithic period and is called ‘Lower‘ only because it occurs lower in the ground, in layers buried beneath the more recent Upper Paleolithic.
Many people are actually familiar with the archaeology of this period although they don’t know it. The famous cave paintings from Lascaux, France, and the Venus figurines from various places in Europe begin in the Upper Paleolithic period. It is a time when art, as though it had lain dormant for all the previous history of the human race, absolutely exploded.
Recovery of the Tools
It was not until Saint-Just Péquart excavated in the late 1930s and early 1940s (with his wife Marthe) that tattoo (tatouage in French) tools were recovered. Interestingly, Péquart was executed in 1944 by a court martial at Montpellier. On the day before he died, he wrote to his wife with instructions to publish the findings of their various excavations for the sake of science–and that’s just what she did.
Publication of the Tattoo Tools
In 1962, just one year before her death, Marthe Péquart published “Grotte du Mas d’Azil (Ariége), Une nouvelle galerie magdalénienne” in Annales de Paléontologie. 48:167-296, pp. 211-214. In that article, the illustration at left appears, showing the tools: In that article, the illustration at left appears, showing the tools of tattooing:
(1) An ochre (or red mineral) “pencil”, ground into this shape and somewhat polished, which has the look of a pencil but may not have been one.
(2) A lump of ochre, a sort of cache of raw material, and the main colorant in this purported corpus of tattoo tools.
(3) A crusher made of bone that was somewhat polished from its use against something hard, about one centimeter thick. These drawings are not all to scale.
(4) A hip socket bone (cotyloid) turned into a small ad hoc cup with three feet, stained both with a blackish substance and also red.
(5) An ochre stained and somewhat polished bone with the interior spongy part of the bone removed, which seems to be a sort of generalized spatula.
(6) Bone needles, 8 to 11 cm in length, some extremely thin and fragile, with a small groove that goes almost to the point, which might have been used to, as the Pequarts noted, “channel ink into the flesh”.
(7) And finally, ochre paste that had been molded into a sort of plate. Initially, the ochre was mixed with some clay and a binder that made it maleable. It was kneaded by hand onto something flat to make it into a plate shape. Small amounts of the soft red paste were then removed, as shown in this reconstruction, by inserting the needles into the paste, sometimes passing through it, but more often not. Removing the needle and bringing a small amount of paste with it in the groove.
Were These Tools Used for Tattooing?
The excavators were clearly convinced that they were, labeling them tattoo tools and emphasizing the importance of body art and decoration in this time period for the occupants of the cave. These tools might just as easily have been used for perforating animals hides, or used in body painting, or even conceivably used for the paintings on the walls. Other tools in the cave, however (such as needles with eyes or brushes or needles with only one pointed end) correspond well to these other types of tasks.
Given the widespread existence of tattooing across the globe in ancient times, the very simple technology required to create images in the skin (a needle and pigment), the interesting ochre paste plate, the small groove in the needles, and the other types of artistic explosion happening during the Upper Paleolithic, I think it’s reasonable to view these as tattoo tools.
Frequently Asked Questions
Yes. Tattooing has been an ancient tradition practiced by humans for thousands of years, with evidence of it found as far back as Neolithic times. It is believed that tattooing was first practiced in Europe during the Upper Paleolithic period approximately 12,000 to 40,000 years ago. This is based on ancient art depicting individuals with tattoos as well as archaeological findings of possible tattoo tools.
Like language and art, tattooing in prehistory likely arose in many place across the globe and in many cultures. There is no one source of tattoos that has been traced to an origin point.
The oldest tattoos discovered to date are those of Ötzi, the Ice Man of the Alps.