Artifact from Bears Ears region identified as a nearly 2,000-year-old tattoo needle — the oldest ever found in western North America

(Andrew Gillreath-Brown | Courtesy of Washington State University) A tattoo needle that's nearly 2,000 years old — made of cactus spines, yucca leaves and a stick of sumac — was recently discovered among artifacts unearthed in Utah's Bears Ears region by Andrew Gillreath-Brown, a Washington State University archaeology doctoral candidate.

An artifact found in Utah’s Bears Ears region is adding about a thousand years to what science believed about the history of tattooing among western North America’s indigenous people.

A paper published last week in the online Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports describes the discovery of a tattoo needle — a three-inch stick of skunkbush wood with two cactus spines attached by yucca leaves — that dates back to the second or third centuries.

“When I first saw it, I thought, ‘That’s really interesting.’ I had never seen anything like it,” said Andrew Gillreath-Brown, an archaeology doctoral candidate at Washington State University, the lead writer of the paper. “It wasn’t until I took it out, with my gloves, that I saw the black staining on the tips.”

The needle was one of the artifacts in a museum box of items unearthed in 1972 at the Turkey Pen dig in the Grand Gulch area of the Bears Ears region, in southeast Utah. Other artifacts found in the same part of the dig have been carbon-dated back to A.D. 100 to A.D. 200.

That makes this tattoo needle the oldest ever found in western North America, Gillreath-Brown said in a phone interview Tuesday from his office in Pullman, Wash. The previous record holder, found in New Mexico in the 1920s, dated back to the 12th or 13th century — and also was made of cactus spines and yucca leaf strips.

The digs in the Bears Ears area have “pretty phenomenal preservation,” Gillreath-Brown said. “Under these rock shelters, it’s protected from rain. It stays pretty dry.”

The needle is believed to have been used by the Ancestral Pueblo who migrated through southeast Utah. For Ahjani Yepa, the Pueblo community outreach coordinator for the nonprofit cultural group Utah Diné Bikéyah, it’s “proof that this was a practice that was lost and possibly can be reclaimed,” she said.

Tattooing has had a resurgence among indigenous cultures in Alaska, the Great Lakes and other parts of North America, Yepa said. She said this find shows tattooing was practiced among the Pueblo before the arrival of Europeans, particularly Catholic missionaries who considered it taboo.

Even now, Yepa said, Pueblos she knows have criticized her for getting tattooed. “I heard, ‘Why are you doing that? That’s not traditional,’” she said.

Tattoo markings were a sign of social status, or cultural or familial ties, among indigenous people, said Angelo Baca, cultural resources coordinator for Utah Diné Bikéyah, who is Hopi and Navajo. “The majority of those markings were intended to be seen, so people would know that social status or other signifiers,” Bacca said.

The patterns may have been simple lines or geometric patterns, Gillreath-Brown said. Evidence of that is seen in the rock art also found in the area, as well as ceramic effigies and pottery that show images of people with designs on their skin.

The Turkey Pen dig is on land that’s part of a wilderness study area overseen by the Bureau of Land Management, and also designated an “Area of Critical Environmental Concern.” It was part of the 1.35 million acres President Barack Obama designated as Bears Ears National Monument in 2016. When President Donald Trump issued his own proclamation a year later, reducing the size of the monument to 201,876 acres, the new boundaries excluded the dig site. Trump’s action has been challenged by three federal lawsuits.

“There’s a lot of knowledge and information [at Bears Ears] that’s important not only to archeologists, but also to indigenous people there,” Gillreath-Brown said. “It’s pretty important to protect it for them.”

The value of Bears Ears goes beyond the land and artifacts, but also the “intangible heritage” of the indigenous people, Baca said.

“If you look at a pot or a basket or even this needle, you can find what it’s made of, and you can carbon-date it as much as you want, but you’re not going to have the other side of the knowledge,” Bacca said.

“Whose responsibility in clanship or family was it to be tattoo artists? What were the songs that went with it? What were the ceremonies affiliated with these markings?" he said. "… It’s really about putting traditional knowledge and Western knowledge on equal, respectful ground.”