The answer to this question is that no one knows. What we do know is that tattooing has been practiced for thousands of years and was a common feature of tribal societies of all six continents (excluding Antarctica). From the Huron peoples of North American, to the Tahitians of the South Pacific, to the Atayal of Taiwan and the Celtic tribes of Europe ..... tattooing seems to have developed independently amongst ancient tribes that had no contact with each other.
Tattoo is art, and art is subjective.
It is difficult to identity the "greatest" tribal tattooing traditions. However, these seven traditions have survived the tests of time and are still thriving today. In fact, these traditions have spread around the world achieving international notoriety.
7. Iban Tattoo of Borneo
The Iban tribes of Borneo were a seafaring warrior tribe infamous for headhunting. They have a rich culture of tattoo artistry that has made a recent comeback.
Iban warriors would receive a dot tattoo on the hand for each head collected in headhunting raids. Some elders still have dotted hand tattoos today.
The headhunting dots are a thing of the past but tattoo artists on the island still use traditional designs and wooden tools.
6. Tattoos of the Atayal tribe of Taiwan
Atayal are the second largest group of aborigines in Taiwan.
Atayal women traditionally received elaborate facial tattoos after achieving skills in weaving and farming. Atayal men were tattooed with two simple bands down the forehead and chin.
The practice was banned during Japanese occupation but has made a comeback in recent decades.
5. Philippine Tribal Tattoo
Tattooing was practiced in The Philippines for hundreds of years before European contact. Filipino tribal tattoos symbolize rank and accomplishments and are thought to have magical powers.
4. Tribal Tattoos of South America and Mexico
The great ancient societies of the Mayans and Aztecs in Mexico and the Incas in South America practiced the art of tattooing since ancient times. Tattoos were highly stylized and involved complex patterns with themes of nature such as birds, turtles and fish.
3. North American First Nations Tattoo
Tattooing was widespread amongst many of the First Nations of North America. Tattoos were thought to have the power to heal aliments caused by evil spirits. Tattoos were also widely used to distinguish the accomplishments of warriors in battle.
2. Celtic Tattoo
The Celtic tribes of Europe had no written language and it is unknown how widely they practiced tattooing. However, Celtic symbols and art have become popular inspirations for modern tattoo designs.
1. Polynesian Tattoo
Polynesian Tattoo includes the tribal traditions of Tahiti, Samoa, Hawaii and the Maori in New Zealand. These ancient traditions are very much alive and kicking today with people all over the world seeking out authentic and/or stylized designs based on these ancient traditions.