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Since their original discovery in 1963, the Tongatapu artefacts have been in storage at the Australian National University awaiting further examination.
In 2016, we took the first really good look at these artefacts using the modern methods and techniques now available to archaeologists.
Through directly dating a sample from one of the combs (the blades that drove the ink into the dermis layer of skin), we determined that the four artefacts were 2,700-years-old – much older than originally thought.
Careful examination also discovered that while two of the combs were made of sea bird bone (such as albatross), the other two were made from the bones of a large land mammal – probably human.
Why human bone? No large mammals were present on Tonga apart from people at that time and early burials from the Pacific show that bones were often taken from burials. We also know that human bone was a favoured material used to make tattooing combs in more recent times.
Tattoo combs made from human bone could mean that people were permanently marked by tools made from the bones of their relatives – a way of combining memory and identity in their artwork.
Originally found alongside the combs was a small pot likely containing tattooing ink. Together, these artefacts made up a tattoist’s toolkit – something exceedingly rare in the archaeological record – and the oldest set of its kind found.
Evidence rarely survives
There is little evidence for early tattooing because tattooed human skin rarely survives intact enough for us to be able to see an inked design.
Thus far, the earliest evidence for tattooing reaches back to 5,300 years – the oldest known case being two ancient Egyptian mummies with small motifs inked into their upper arms.
The discovery of implements used in tattooing is even rarer. This is because identifying tools used to ink one’s skin is exceptionally difficult – any sharp object could potentially be utilised. Also, the kind of evidence needed to positively identify a tattooing blade (such as ink) often doesn’t survive.
The oldest surviving tattooing tools found so far are sharp flakes made of obsidian (volcanic glass) used 3,500 years ago in New Guinea for piercing or puncturing the skin, and in Egypt, single metal or stone points that might be tattooing equipment dating back to 3,200 BC.
In Oceania, we don’t have mummies to help us figure out when tattooing first appeared because skin doesn’t survive our harsh tropical conditions. So, instead we must look for less direct clues – such as tools.
Technology still used today
While the Tongatapu bone combs are younger than the metal and stone points previously found, they are part of a far more complex technology – one which is still used in present day traditional tattooing.
In the Pacific, tattooing has a long history. The unique and powerful designs made an impact on early European explorers to the region, and the return of tattooed sailors, beachcombers, and Indigenous peoples to Europe created lasting interest in the practice.
Ultimately, it was this contact between European and Pacific cultures that led to the vibrant modern tattooing traditions and the spread of Polynesian inspired tattoos all over the world today. (Ironically, in the 19th century missionaries suppressed tattooing in parts of the Pacific and in Tonga itself, people had to travel to Samoa to be tattooed.)
Despite the importance of tattooing to past and current Pacific peoples, we don’t actually know if it was something that arrived with the first human colonists to the islands around 3,500 years ago – or if it was invented at some point afterwards.
With this discovery, however, we now know that the complex inline tattooing combs were already present in Tonga almost 3,000 years ago and that they may very well have been invented there.
As often happens, this announcement was the result of a surprisingly long process, and yet it has shocked some archaeologists. The response to it reveals much about the nature of archaeological argument and about the way we think about the past.
The paper reported on an axe fragment found at a site in the Kimberley region in Western Australia. It wasn’t a case of the discovery being a single event, a sudden moment as the object was dug from the ground and revealed for what it was.
Instead, the “discovery” spans almost 20 years.
The story began in the 1990s, when my colleague Sue O’Connor – now Laureate Professor at ANU – excavated into the deposit. She uncovered a remarkably rich record of human activity spanning the last 50,000 years.
She retrieved thousands of artefacts and bones, and found impressively early evidence of painted art. But when she and her colleagues catalogued the artefacts, they did not recognise that one small specimen had polished surfaces.
In 2014, Sue and her PhD student, Tim Maloney, were relooking at the collection, and they spotted the polish on this object.
To archaeologists, this is like a neon light: it shouts that the object has an unusual history. As a specialist in ancient stone artefacts, I was brought into the investigation.
It was obvious on first view that this was a flake broken from the edge and a ground, or polished, axe. I have seen hundreds of similar archaeological specimens, and made them myself experimentally.
What was unusual about this one was its age. It came from the same level as a piece of charcoal that was dated to 44,000 to 49,000 years old. Thus, by association, we believe the axe fragment to be about the same age. Exciting stuff.
We knew that made this the oldest axe in the world!
A high bar
But how would we convince others of this discovery?
I set about making a detailed description of the specimen, while Tim Maloney provided me with measurements of other artefacts he had measured from the site.
I have four decades of experience, and it was really straightforward for me to describe this axe flake: it had the same edge angle as more recent Australian axes; it was made on the same material used for Australian axes; and it had the polished surfaces preserved with clear indications of the abrasion that created the edge of the axe from which it came.
Equipped with my description, we sat down and wrote a paper. We sent it off. It was sent back.
Some reviewers were not convinced the specimen was a piece of an axe. They wondered if the abrasion could have been natural and they said our photographs were not clear enough.
Disappointed, but not dismayed, the co-authors and I understood this was the job of a good reviewer; a high bar should, indeed, be set for such a significant discovery.
I corresponded with the journal editor and established what would be needed to make the case: a high resolution photograph and a demonstration that the smoothed surface must have come from an axe.
I took the piece to our new 3D digital microscope. It eventually gave me extraordinary photographs of the specimen and quantitative measurements of the roughness of the polished surfaces.
I compared the roughness indices to natural surfaces, to flaked surfaces and to the surfaces of Australian axes. I did experiments abrading the surfaces of Kimberley basalt. No surprise. The only match was the surface of other axes.
We re-submitted the paper. It was reviewed, again. We still got the same question: could the smoothness be the outer weathered surface of a cobble? The answer was no.
In fact, we had already explained in the paper how the smoothing process ground down the highpoints of other manufacturing surfaces, and so the axe was shaped all over and then ground. It couldn’t be a natural surface, and the reviewer had simply missed this point.
I don’t mind a high threshold of evidence, but I like reviewers to actually understand the paper.
But now, several reviewers began a second line of criticism. They said this was only one specimen, so how can we be sure it is real?
I am an experienced academic and I am used to the argy-bargy and politics of journal reviews, but how could I respond to this? Isn’t it to be expected that the first discovery of something will usually be a singular instance?
Of course, we would want this to be a repeatable observation, and no doubt it will be repeated as future archaeologists do further work. At heart I am a Popperian, and so I made the case to the editor that surely what counted was the quality of our demonstration that the specimen came from an axe, not the number of times an axe had been broken at the site.
I pointedly wrote to the editor saying that, if it were a more fashionable object – one pyramid, one statuette, or one hominid tooth instead of one axe fragment – it would be published to inform the discipline that it existed.
They corresponded with the reviewers, who merely suggested we go back and dig more. Going back to dig again would take years, hundreds or thousands of dollars and in the end may produce nothing. Because, perhaps, it was simply the only axe fragment in the site.
Our final approach to the editor of the journal Australian Archaeology met with a positive response. Yes, we only had one specimen, but we had demonstrated it must have come from an axe. There were no other production systems known in Australia that would create these features.
They accepted the paper.
Of course, it’s possible there might be some problem with our announcement revealed in the future. But on balance, the current evidence shows our conclusion is likely to be true, and surely that’s all we can ask for.
The announcement is significant. It reveals technological and cultural novelty and innovation in the anatomically modern humans dispersing from Africa, in the ancestors of Aboriginal people.
We have had a lot of press coverage today. Much of it good, much of it fair. And there have been some criticisms.
The BBC quoted American archaeologist, John Shea, saying:
The evidence is essentially one flake – one piece of stone out of hundreds and hundreds that they’ve excavated from this rock shelter site […] They would make a stronger case if they could show that similar chips with edge abrasion occurred at a greater number of sites.
Obviously, one pyramid isn’t enough for some people.
Young researchers reading this can take away the obvious message: while tough reviewing is a proper part of academia publishing, many reviewers’ comments may be way off the mark.
Be reflexive and self-critical, but you may also need to be resilient because dramatic discoveries can be challenging to academics and the public alike.
At the Verge, Adrianne Jeffries tells the sad story of Bob Diamond, who rediscovered the world’s oldest subway tunnel, in 1980, when he was 20 years old. Brooklyn’s Atlantic Avenue tunnel had been sealed in 1861 and then the city sort of … lost track of it.
But Diamond figured out where it was and made a career out of giving tours:
He’d lug three plastic orange barricades out to the middle of Atlantic Avenue, pry off the manhole cover with a crowbar, and steady a thin ladder into the narrow shaft, the only entrance to the tunnel. Tourists would line up in the middle of the busy road, descending one by one into a tight passageway. It led to an Alice in Wonderland-sized doorway that opened up on a large staircase, built by Diamond and his colleagues in the ‘80s. The stairs lead down into a massive, spooky hall…
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The link below is to an article reporting on the discovery of the oldest calendar in the world.
The link below is to an article reporting on the discovery of the oldest known copy of the Torah.
The link below is to an article that looks at the oldest horse in English history – Old Billy.
The link below is to an article that looks at 10 of the oldest people in history.
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The link below is to an article that reports on what Archaeologists are describing as the world’s oldest purse – a dog teeth studded stone age purse found in Germany.