(Robert S. Bianchi, 1988)
There was little anthropological attention to tattooing in the early part of the century because of preconceived notions of its insignificance to cultural analysis. Archaeological evidence indicates that the Maya, Toltec, and Aztec cultures performed tattooing and scarification, and that the practice is thousands of years old in Asian cultures. (Arnold Rubin, 1988)
Although tattooing was practiced in pre-Christian Europe, the word tattoo does not appear in English until Captain John Cook imported it after a journey to the Pacific Islands in the eighteenth century. Captain Cook claimed the Tahitians used the word tatua, from ta, meaning "to strike or knock," for the marks they made upon their bodies. Captain Cook recorded this word as "tattaw." The Polynesian word tapu, from which the word taboo derives, indicates the status of the person while being tattooed. (Irving Goldman, 1970)
Although no connection has been made between the words tattoo and taboo, it seems highly likely that they are related. While enduring the process of acquiring socially meaningful marks, the tattooee is being formed and shaped into an acceptable member of society. Prior to the completion of the tattoos the person is not only physically vulnerable because of the possibility of contamination during the penetrating process of tattooing but symbolically vulnerable as well. No longer without a tattoo, but without a finished tattoo, the person's body and therefore the self are not yet completed. The person is a liminal entity not yet in society and therefore taboo. (E.S. Craighill Handy and Wil lowdean Chatterson Handy, 1924)
Although the origin of tattooing is uncertain, anthropological research confirms that tattooing, as well as other body alterations and mutilations, is significant in the spiritual beliefs of many cultures. Various peoples tattoo or scarify during puberty rituals. In traditional South Pacific Tonga society, only priests could tattoo others and tattoos were symbolic of full tribal status. (Mircea Eliade, 1958)
Eskimo women traditionally tattooed their faces and breasts and believed that acquiring sufficient tattoos guaranteed a happy afterlife. In many African cultures scars indicate social status and desirability as a marriage partner. Scarification patterns often identify the bearer as a member of a specific village. Many of these practices are changing and fading as Western influences enter African cultures. (William D. Piersen, 1993)
Until the mid-nineteenth century, Cree Indians living on the Great Plains tattooed for luck, for beauty, and to protect their health. Cree men with special powers received tattoos to help them communicate with spirits. A dream conferred the privilege of receiving a tattoo, which would be inscribed during a ceremony conducted by a shaman authorized to tattoo. (Nancy A. Gutierrez, 1989)
The tattooing instruments were kept in a special bundle passed on from shaman to shaman. The ability to withstand the painful and tedious process of tattooing, which often lasted two to three days, confirmed the tattooee's courage. Blood shed during the process was believed to possess magical power and was absorbed with a special cloth and kept for future use.