Middle and Late Holocene Skin-Working Tools in Melanesia: Tattooing and Scarification?

By Kononenko, Nina | Archaeology in Oceania, April 2012 | Go to article overview
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Middle and Late Holocene Skin-Working Tools in Melanesia: Tattooing and Scarification?

Kononenko, Nina, Archaeology in Oceania


Use-wear/residue analysis of small flakes and stemmed tools made of obsidian and quartz, from middle and late Holocene archaeological sites in Melanesia, indicates their use in piercing and cutting soft skin. This skin-working activity was possibly associated with occasional manufacture of items from animal skins but it is more likely these tools were used for tattooing, scarification or medical treatment of the human body. Tattooing by cutting and piercing and scarification are an integral aspect of social behaviour among peoples in the Pacific region. I argue that the practice of tattooing by cutting and piercing were both used in Melanesia in the middle Holocene, but tattooing by piercing became more common in the late Holocene.

Keywords: Melanesia, West New Britain, Vanuatu, use-wear/residue analysis, stemmed tools, flakes, obsidian, quartz

Much of the archaeological record in Melanesia consists of simple stone flakes with few recognisable types of retouched tools. This record restricts the use of some methodological approaches in the identification and explanation of prehistoric tool use strategies and their association with people's daily activities, subsistence strategies and settlement history. In contrast, microscopic examination of wear patterns and residues on tools and the experimental replication of tool function initiated by Kamminga (1982), Fullagar (1986) and Loy (Loy 1983, 1993, Loy et al. 1992) in the Pacific region have provided important insights into the function of stone artefacts. Further significant contributions have been made by integrated studies of prehistoric tools combining replication experiments with low and high powered microscopic analysis of wear and residues. (e.g. Barton and Fullagar 2006; Fullagar 1992, 1993a, 1993b, 1994, 1998, 2006; Fullagar et al. 1998, 2006; Haslam and Liston 2008; Kealhofer et al. 1999).

Recent integrated experimental and use-wear/residue study of middle and late Holocene obsidian flakes from West New Britain, Papua New Guinea, has significantly extended the previously reported range of functions for obsidian tools, particularly in terms of uses related to tropical resources (Kononenko 2007, 2011). Tools were involved in subsistence practices, particularly food processing (fish and tubers) and domestic activities (manufacturing items from woody plants and shells). In a preliminary analysis some small and deliberately shaped stemmed artefacts and simple flakes with one or two angular sharp points from mid-Holocene (pre-Lapita) and late-Holocene (Lapita) sites on Gama Island, West New Britain (Petrie and Torrence 2008) were identified as skin-working tools. The tools preserve use-wear traces and residues derived from piercing and cutting a soft pliable material, similar to skin. This suggests that these tools could have been associated with social aspects of prehistoric human behaviour involving medical treatment and marking the body by tattooing and scarification (Kononenko 2011:71; Kononenko and Torrence 2009).

Ethnographic and linguistic accounts demonstrate that tattooing and scarification are widespread and socially important in the Pacific and that obsidian tools were used in these activities (e.g. Ambrose 2012; Barton 1918; Buckiand 1888; Krieger 1932; Parkinson [1908] 1999:48-50; Pawley 2007; Specht 1981). Therefore it is important to actually date the origin of this social activity. The earliest indirect evidence of possible tattooing in the archaeological record of the Pacific comes from decoration on Lapita pottery sherds. Kirch (1997:142-143) proposed that both body tattooing and pottery making were brought to Melanesia by Austronesian speakers and that methods similar to those used in tattooing were employed to create dentate-stamped Lapita pottery. The finds of decorated stylised human faces on ceramic vessels and figurine fragments depicting the face with pricked (or pierced) markings on the nose, cheeks and forehead (Green 2002; Kirch 1997:141-143; Summerhayes 1998; Torrence & White, 2001) are considered as a link between Southeast Asian and Pacific populations (Kirch 1997:143-144).

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Middle and Late Holocene Skin-Working Tools in Melanesia: Tattooing and Scarification?


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