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23 July 2016
Early Pacific islanders may have used obsidian to make tattoos

Skin normally decays, leading to a lack of evidence of tattooing in ancient peoples. Some researchers have looked for the tools which might have been used, yet many are assumed to have been made of biodegradable material such as fish bone. Now three researchers from Australia have found evidence of obsidian tools being crafted for use in creating tattoos approximately 3,000 years ago by South Pacific Islanders.
     Nina Kononenko and Robin Torrence of the University of Sydney and Peter Sheppard of the University of Auckland conducted experiments using cut obsidian - an obvious choice, due to its sharp, glass-like features. They focused on the Solomon Islands as a possible site of early tattooing activities for several reasons, including the region's long history of tattooing, easy access to obsidian, and obsidian artefacts suitable for creating tattoos found at a site called Nanggu dating back around 3,000 years. Prior research had suggested obsidian tools were used to tan hides, but a lack of large animals would have meant there were no hides to tan. To test the possibility that the artefacts had been used to create tattoos, the researchers gathered obsidian samples from island sites, fashioned them into roughly the same shapes as the artefacts and used them to create tattoos on pigskin, afterwards comparing microscopic views of both sets of tools.
     The sample tools they created looked remarkably similar under the microscope to the artefacts, with characteristic chipping, rounding and blunting as well as thin scratches. In addition, the artefacts carried traces of ochre, charcoal, and blood - strong evidence of obsidian tools being used by early islanders to create tattoos.

Edited from PhysOrg (11 July 2016)

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