Wednesday, May 11, 2011



Timucuan Man of Florida, John White Painting, 1585
(after LeMoyne, 1564)

Timucuan Woman of Florida, John White Painting, 1585 (after LeMoyne, 1564)

Modifying the human body with permanent marks has been around at least 5000 years, the age of the tattooed Ice Man recently discovered in a melting glacier on the Swiss/Italian border.  Egyptian mummies have tattoos preserved on their mummified skin.

Christopher Columbus
The first written description of what may be tattooing in the Americas was reported by Columbus's crew members on his first voyages to the New World.  Dr. Diego Alverez Chanca, a physician on Columbus's second voyage, noted in a letter, that the Caribbean Indians painted themselves with sharpened reeds.  Oviedo, the first historian of Spanish Florida who wrote in the 16th century, asserted that tattooing was practiced everywhere in New Spain using flint razors and pitch pine. 




Early explorers along the East Coast of North America noted the incidence of body decoration almost everywhere.  DeSoto's chroniclers reported it on their travels through the Southeast in 1526.  Soldiers, sailors and an artist/cartographer with the French Hugeunots who built Fort Caroline in 1564, wrote about tattooing among the Timucua Indians of Northeast Florida. 


Outina Consults a Sorcerer, DeBry Engraving of Timucua, 1591 (after LeMoyne, 1564)
The first published artististic depiction of tattooed American Indians was published in 1591 by Theodore DeBry, a Dutch engraver.  He portrayed the Timucua Indians of Florida and the Algonquians of Virginia (later to become North Carolina) as tattooed.  His Florida engravings were thought to be based on paintings by the French Hugeunot cartographer, Jacques Le Moyne, and his Virginia engravings were proven to be based on the watercolors of John White, an Englishman with the Roanoke Voyages. 


Saturina Goes to War, DeBry Engraving of Timucua, 1591 (after LeMoyne, 1564)


The King and Queen Take a Walk, DeBry Engraving of Timucua, 1591 (after LeMoyne, 1564)
Le Moyne's original paintings were lost but White's watercolors have survived.  White's paintings are the earliest artistic representations of Southeastern American Indians and many depict body decoration.  And the captions  clearly report that some of the markings were permanent.

One of the Wives of Wyngyno, John White Painting of Algonquian Indians of Virginia (later North Carolina), 1585



The Wife of the Chief of Pomeioc with her Daughter, John White Painting of Algonquian Indians, 1585 
Indian in War Paint, John White Painting of Algonquian Indians, 1585  


A Great Lord of Virginia, DeBry Engraving, 1591 (after White, 1585)
The Marks of the Chief Men of Virginia, DeBry Engraving, 1591 (after White, 1585)













As noted above, the use of painting and tattooing by American Indians was widespread at the time of first European contact and was reported by the explorers of the15th, 16th and 17th centuries.  In the 18th century, soldiers, traders, missionaries and settlers frequently reported and depicted the unusual and extensive body decoration of the American Indians. 
The Georgia Indians in Their Natural Habitat, PhilipVon Reck Painting, 1736

Mohawk Chief, Verelst Painting , 1710

Tomochichi, King of the Yamachraw and his Son, Verelst Painting, 1734 




















In the 19th century, the U.S. government commissioned portraits of Indian leaders who came to Washington to negotiate treaties.  Although most of these Indian leaders had adopted European dress, their portraits show that facial decoration persisted through the 19th century.
Yoholo-Micco, a Creek Chief, Charles Bird  King Painting, 1826
 

Straight Man, a Distinguishwed Shawnee Warrior, George Catlin Painting, 1830
Traveling artists such as George Catlin document that in the 19th century, Indians of the Midwest and West still practiced body decoration.
A Choctaw Ball Player, George Catlin Painting, 1834



















Weetarasharo, Head Chief of the Wichita, George Catlin Painting, 1834

Illinois Warriors and Dancer, Alexander DeBatz Painting, 1732

In pre-contact times, before Europeans "discovered" America, American Indians created human figural art in engraved shell, embossed copper, wood and clay figurines.  Many of these human figural artifacts uncovered archaeologically, depict body decoration.  It is difficult to determine if these depictions represented painting or tattooing of the body but some of the designs are very similar to tattooing documented in historic times.

Engraved Shell Cup, Spiro Site, Spiro Oklahoma
Rubbing of Engraved Shell Cup, Spiro Site, Spiro, Oklahoma
Engraved Shell Mask with weeping eye decoration, Little Egypt Site, Murray County, Georgia

Repousse Copper Profile Cutout with forked eye decoration, Spiro, Oklahoma

Drawing of Repousse Copper Birdman Plate, Burial 7, Leon County, Florida 

Wooden Masks, Key Marco Site, Marco Island, Florida
Human Head Effigy Vessel, Blythville, Arkansas




Two hunchback human figural vessels with face and body decoration,
Nodena Phase,
a late pre-contact Mississippean Culture, Campbell Site, Pemiscot County, Missouri and Mississippi County, Arkansas 


Yuchi Face Painting, Chief Society and Warrior Society, Frank G. Speck drawing from his ethnographic reseach, 1909
The most recent source of information on American Indian body decoration is found in ethnographic studies with Indian informants. This type of study undertaken in the late19th and 20th centuries, served primarily to document the loss of the native Indian cultural traditions including body decoration, with acculturation.

Today, tattooing has experienced a revival among all of American society including Native Americans. Some Native Americans today are using the same literary, artistic and archaeological sources cited above to revive their ancient traditions including the widespread tradition of decorating the body with permanent marks.



Hand-across-mouth design, historic Omaha warrior and prehistoric hawkman embossed copper plate drawing from Dunklin County, Missouri

Poor Wolf, Hidatsa Man with Tattoo, Frederick N. Wilson painting, 20th century




















Photographic citations listed in:   Antoinette B. Wallace, "Southeastern American Indian Body Decoration:  Forms and Functions"  A Masters Thesis, Harvard University, 1993.

5 Responses so far.

  1. Great collection of images! Thanks for posting.

  2. A great cross-cultural group of images. Thanks for posting!

  3. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
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