Sunday, March 10, 2019

Polynesian tattoos: Out of Tonga, into the world

Tattooing is not a Polynesian invention, but it clearly developed into a fine art in the Pacific Islands.
Ötzi, the fellow who died in the ice in the Italian Alps 5,300 years ago had dozens of tattoos. And his death predates the development of Polynesian culture. Ötzi's 61 tattoos were generally geometric forms. Crosses and stripes and rows of lines. Early Egyption mummies had tattoos as well.
But tattooing certainly developed dramatically during the Polynesian period. A new paper on Polynesian tattooing reviews the way the tattooing art progressed.
(Image: Australian archaeologist Geoffrey Clark of The Australian National University holds a 2,700-year-old tattoo comb from Tonga. Credit: Jack Fox/ANU)
It is "Ancient Tattooing in Polynesia," published in the Journal of Island and CoastalArchaeology by Australian researchers Geoffrey Clark of the Australian National University at Canberra and Michelle Langley of Griffith University at Langley. 
Tattooing is the art of inserting pigment under the skin to create a permanent mark. In its finest form, the skin is used as a canvas for broad patterns. In Polynesia most of those patterns were geometric, but they often represented organic organisms—like sharks or birds.
Much Polynesian tattooing was done with bone "combs," thin planks of bone with a series of sharp points carved into one end. The bone used to make the tattooing combs was sometimes human, but more often bird or pig, and even flying foxes and fish. The sharp bone tips would be dipped in pigment, placed against the skin and tapped repeatedly with a mallet to inject the dye.
One of the interesting things about the history of Pacific tattooing is that tattoo tools don't show up in the earliest archaeological sites, the authors say. It is also clear that while tattoo tools were found through much of the Pacific and Asia, "the most elaborate bone tattoo tools restricted to Polynesia," they write.
People in other parts of the Pacific used other tools—like bits of sharp obsidian—for tattooing, but the Polynesian tattooing comb first appears in archaeological sites dating to about 2,700 years ago in Tonga.
The many similar tattoo tools in Eastern Polynesia, including Hawai`i, date much younger.
"Bone combs are relatively common in the archaeological record of East Polynesia which was colonized 1,000–700 years ago," they write.
The materials are so common that it suggests tattooing itself, while it did not exist 3000 years ago, became a regular part of growing up in Polynesia, particularly in what is now French Polynesia. Joseph Banks, who was Captain Cook's botanist in the Pacific during the 1760s, wrote:
"It [tattooing] was done between the ages of 14 and 18 and so essential it is that I have never seen one single person of years of maturity without it."
In the 1800,s Tongan men who failed to be tattooed were subject to ridicule.
Polynesian tattooing became such a social force, the authors say, that the techniques spread to other parts of Oceania. And although some tattooing was clearly done earlier in Europe—Ötzi being the best example—European whalers and explorers brought back an interest in the tattoo from Polynesia to Europe in the 1700s and 1800s.
"Interest in 'native' tattooing continued during, and after, the voyages of Cook and others to the Pacific during the Enlightenment," Clark and Langley write.
© Jan TenBruggencate 2019