MARKS OF IDENTITY: THE ETHNOBOTANY OF TATTOOING
The resurgence of interest in traditional tattooing, as well as concern about the safety of commercial inks, has led to a search for “natural,” “traditional,” products for tattoos. Scientific techniques for visualizing and analyzing ancient tattoos preserved on mummified human remains have been able to identify minerals and “pyrolized plant particles” (soot) in ancient tattoos, but not the plant taxa themselves. Ethnographic studies of traditional tattooing have focused largely on tattoo motifs, meaning and tool technology, with less emphasis on the botanical materials involved. While it is true that “soot” from burned plant material is the most common tattoo pigment, a variety of other plants were traditionally used to produce tattoos by either injecting colors under the skin or via the activity of irritant chemicals that produced tattoo-like marks. Indigenous peoples around the world have used a variety of plant substances to produce tattoos for therapeutic, decorative, commemorative or ritual reasons; the rarity of the tattooing plant itself sometimes also lent extra meaning and significance to the tattoo. This paper looks at tattooing plants cross-culturally, with a focus on Oceania and North America.
Dr. Anna Dixon is Instructor of Anthropology at USFSP. She received her MA at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville and PhD at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. She was formerly Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Eckerd College and Archaeological Laboratory Director for Pan-American Consultants in Tampa. She is a medical anthropologist and ethnobotanist who has conducted fieldwork in Micronesia, Polynesia and North America.