Australian researchers have uncovered the world's oldest known tattooing kit from a site in Tonga, including items believed to have been fashioned from human bone.
The intricate, multitoothed tattooing tools were found in 1963 on Tongatapu Island, Tonga's main island, in the Pacific Ocean.
Recent radiocarbon dating found the combs to be around 2,700 years old, making them the oldest confirmed multitoothed tattooing implements found in Oceania, researchers from the Australian National University (ANU) said Tuesday.
ANU associate professor Geoffrey Clark said the bone tattoo combs, which have blades for driving the ink into the dermis layer of skin, are "a very specific type of technology found across Oceania."
"This discovery pushes back the date of Polynesian tattooing right back to the beginnings of Polynesian cultures around 2,700 years ago," Clark said.
Of the four tattooing combs examined, two were made from the bones of a large seabird, while the other two were made with the bones of a large land mammal, most likely human, according to the researchers.
"As there were no other mammals of that size on the island at the time, and human bone is known to be a preferred material for making tattooing combs, we believe they are most likely made from human bone," said researcher Michelle Langley from Griffith University's Australian Research Centre for Human Evolution.
The oldest evidence for tattooed skin goes back more than 5,000 years to the age of mummies in Egypt and the iceman known as Otzi, discovered on the border between Austria and Italy, though there have been no tattooing tools found in these areas.
Langley said the discovery of early tattooing implements is exceptionally rare.
"To find an entire kit is phenomenal. We very rarely find a whole kit of any type of tools in the archaeological record," she said.
The researchers think the kit most likely belonged to one tattoo artist, as one of the tools was broken and was likely being repaired.
The tools are very similar in design to those used for traditional Pacific tattoos today, Langley said.
"The actual tool itself - the comb shape and the way it's used - hasn't changed much, and that's why this find is so interesting. These ancient tools continue to be used today," she said.
Clark and Langley are the first researchers to minutely study and date the tattooing combs, which had been in ANU storage for decades.
After bushfires in Canberra in 2003, the kit was feared to have been destroyed; while the combs were found undamaged, an ink pot originally discovered with them has not been recovered.
Tattoo culture in the Pacific diminished to some extent when European Christian missionaries first arrived and banned the practice on certain islands. This meant that, for example, Tongans would have to travel to Samoa to get work done at one stage, according to researchers.
Clark and Langley's research was published in the Journal of Island & Coastal Archaeology this week.