Feb. 28 (UPI) -- Archaeologists have identified the oldest tattoo tool in western North America.
The ancient artifact, which had been sitting in storage for 40 years, was found by Andrew Gillreath-Brown, a doctoral candidate in anthropology at Washington State University.
"When I first pulled it out of the museum box and realized what it might have been, I got really excited," Gillreath-Brown said in a news release.
Archaeologists determined the inking tool is at least 2,000 years old and was built and used by the Ancestral Pueblo people who made their home in southeastern Utah.
Researchers described the discovery in a new paper published this week in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports.
"Tattooing by prehistoric people in the Southwest is not talked about much because there has not ever been any direct evidence to substantiate it," Gillreath-Brown said in a news release. "This tattoo tool provides us information about past Southwestern culture we did not know before."
The ancient tool consists of a handle made of wooden skunkbush sumac. A pair of parallel cactus spines form the needle. Their tips are stained with black ink. The compounds are bound together by split yucca leaves.
"The residue staining from tattoo pigments on the tip was what immediately piqued my interest as being possibly a tattoo tool," Gillreath-Brown said.
Advanced imaging technologies, including an electron scanning microscope, as well as X-ray florescence and energy dispersive ray spectroscopy, revealed carbon atoms among the crystalline structure of the pigment. Carbon was commonly used for ancient tattooing and body painting.
To confirm the tool's purpose, Gillreath-Brown built a replica and inked several tattoos on pig skin.
Until now, the oldest evidence of tattooing in the American Southwest dated to between 1100 and 1280 AD. The latest discovery dates to the Basketmaker II period, the first Pueblo Indians, some 1,400 years before Europeans arrived on the North American continent.
Tattooing is common among indigenous cultures and early civilizations across the globe. Last year, archaeologists found tattoos on two 5,000-year-old Egyptian mummies. But in western North America, tracing the origins of the practice has proven difficult. No tattoos have been found on ancient human remains recovered in the Southwest and there are no known written accounts of the practice.
According to Gillreath-Brown, the latest discovery "has a great significance for understanding how people managed relationships and how status may have been marked on people in the past during a time when population densities were increasing in the Southwest."