Stone Age twining unraveled
Stone Age twining unraveled
purposes in western Asia by 32,000 years ago
By Bruce Bower
An excavation in western Asia has yielded wild flax fibers,
such as this twisted specimen, suggesting that people made twine for
sewing clothes and other purposes around 32,000 years ago.Science/AAAS
In the Stone Age, advances in fiber technology globalized people not
communication. As early as 32,000 years ago, hunter-gatherers figured
out how to transform wild flax fibers into cords suitable for sewing
clothes, weaving baskets and attaching stone tools to handles,
researchers report in the Sept. 11 Science.
Their excavations at a western Asian cave have yielded the oldest
known fragments of twine.
Following the ancient invention of cord-making techniques, human
groups were able to create warm, durable clothes and other gear needed
for trekking into Siberia and across a now-submerged land bridge to
North America, proposes Harvard University archaeologist Ofer Bar-
Yosef, a coauthor of the new study.
“The invention of cordage was an extremely important technological
event,” Bar-Yosef says.
In 2007 and 2008, a team including Bar-Yosef and led by paleobotanist
Eliso Kvavadze of the Georgian National Museum in Tbilisi collected
soil samples from Georgia’s Dzudzuana Cave containing more than 1,000
wild flax fibers. Radiocarbon measurements of animal bones and charred
wood in the cave’s sediment pointed to periods of human activity from
32,000 to 26,000 years ago, 23,000 to 19,000 years ago and 13,000 to
11,000 years ago. These periods fell within a Stone Age phase called
the Upper Paleolithic, during which cave painting and other cultural
Twine siteScientists unearthed twisted and knotted flax fibers
suggestive of Stone Age twine at Dzudzuana Cave in Georgia.Science/
Flax fibers display a signature microscopic shape and structure, the
researchers say. Some of the new finds included pairs of flax fibers
that had been twisted together, suggesting intentional modification of
the fibers. One such find contained numerous knots. Other ancient
fibers had been dyed different colors including black, gray, turquoise
and, in one case, pink.
Natural pigments available near the Georgian cave, including roots and
other plant parts, could have provided dye ingredients, Kvavadze and
his colleagues suggest.
Prehistoric cave residents probably used fiber cords in activities
that involved fur, skin and cloth, such as garment making, the
scientists say. Fiber-containing soil samples also yielded remains of
hair from an extinct wild ox, skin beetles, moths and a fungus known
to destroy clothes and other textiles.
Upper Paleolithic cord remnants are “extraordinarily rare,” remarks
archaeologist Olga Soffer of the University of Illinois at Urbana-
Champaign. Researchers have found 15,000- to 17,000-year-old rope
fragments in France’s Lascaux cave and 19,000-year-old fragments of
fibrous twine at Israel’s Ohalo II site.
The types of plant fibers used at Lascaux and Ohalo II remain unknown.
It’s not surprising that Upper Paleolithic people used wild flax
fibers to make string, rope, nets and cloth, comments archaeologist
James Adovasio of Mercyhurst College in Erie, Pa. By around 5,000
years ago, cultivated flax fueled a revolution in textile production
in the Middle East and western Asia.
Other signs of Upper Paleolithic textiles come not from actual fibers
but from impressions of cords, baskets, nets and various fabrics on
prehistoric pottery. Soffer and Adovasio previously identified such
evidence at a 26,000-year-old site in the Czech Republic.
Representations of woven material also appear on female figurines from
around that time.
Harvard archaeologist Irene Good agrees that people made textiles out
of plant fibers around 30,000 years ago but takes a cautious view of
the new fragmentary finds. It’s possible individual flax fibers blew
into the ancient cave, got buried and then became twisted during
microscopic analyses, Good says.
Some fibers might have absorbed mineral colors from the soil rather
than from intentional dyeing, in her view. “If this is evidence for
dyeing fibers, then it is by far the earliest,” Good notes. Dyeing of
wool began roughly 4,000 years ago.
Further work at the Georgian cave needs to probe for intact threads
containing many flax fibers and pottery bearing textile impressions,
Archaeologists discover oldest-known fiber materials used by early
Flax fibers could have been used for warmth and mobility; for rope,
baskets, or shoes
CAMBRIDGE, Mass. – A team of archaeologists and paleobiologists has
discovered flax fibers that are more than 34,000 years old, making
them the oldest fibers known to have been used by humans. The fibers,
discovered during systematic excavations in a cave in the Republic of
Georgia, are described in this week's issue of Science.
The flax, which would have been collected from the wild and not
farmed, could have been used to make linen and thread, the researchers
say. The cloth and thread would then have been used to fashion
garments for warmth, sew leather pieces, make cloths, or tie together
packs that might have aided the mobility of our ancient ancestors from
one camp to another.
The excavation was jointly led by Ofer Bar-Yosef, George Grant
MacCurdy and Janet G. B. MacCurdy Professor of Prehistoric Archaeology
in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at Harvard University, with Tengiz
Meshveliani from the Georgian State Museum and Anna Belfer-Cohen from
the Hebrew University. The microscopic research of the soil samples in
which numerous flax fibers were discovered was done by Eliso Kvavadze
of the Institute of Paleobiology, part of the National Museum of
"This was a critical invention for early humans. They might have used
this fiber to create parts of clothing, ropes, or baskets—for items
that were mainly used for domestic activities," says Bar-Yosef. "We
know that this is wild flax that grew in the vicinity of the cave and
was exploited intensively or extensively by modern humans."
The items created with these fibers increased early humans chances of
survival and mobility in the harsh conditions of this hilly region.
The flax fibers could have been used to sew hides together for
clothing and shoes, to create the warmth necessary to endure cold
weather. They might have also been used to make packs for carrying
essentials, which would have increased and eased mobility, offering a
great advantage to a hunter-gatherer society.
Some of the fibers were twisted, indicating they were used to make
ropes or strings. Others had been dyed. Early humans used the plants
in the area to color the fabric or threads made from the flax.
Today, these fibers are not visible to the eye, because the garments
and items sewed together with the flax have long ago disintegrated.
Bar-Yosef, Kvavadze and colleagues discovered the fibers by examining
samples of clay retrieved from different layers of the cave under a
The discovery of such ancient fibers was a surprise to the scientists.
Previously, the oldest known were imprints of fibers in small clay
objects found in Dolni Vestonice, a famous site in the Czech Republic
some 28,000 years old.
The scientists' original goal was to analyze tree pollen samples found
inside the cave, part of a study of environmental and temperature
fluctuations over the course of thousands of years that would have
affected the lives of these early humans. However, while looking for
this pollen, Kvavadze, who led the analysis of the pollen, also
discovered non-pollen polymorphs – these flax fibers.
Bar-Yosef and his team used radiocarbon dating to date the layers of
the cave as they dug the site, revealing the age of the clay samples
in which the fibers were found. Flax fibers were also found in the
layers that dated to about 21,000 and 13,000 years ago.
Bar-Yosef's team began the excavations of this cave in 1996, and has
returned to the site each year to complete this work.
"We were looking to find when the cave was occupied, what was the
nature of the occupation by those early hunter-gatherers, where did
they go hunting and gathering food, what kind of stone tools they
used, what types of bone and antler tools they made and how they used
them, whether they made beads and pendants for body decoration, and so
on," says Bar-Yosef. "This was a wonderful surprise, to discover these
ancient flax fibers at the end of this excavation project."
Science 11 September 2009:
Vol. 325. no. 5946, p. 1329
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News of the Week
Clothes Make the (Hu) Man
The first clothes, worn at least 70,000 years ago and perhaps much
earlier, were probably made of animal skins and helped protect early
humans from the ice ages. Then at some point people learned to weave
plant fibers into textiles. But when? The answer is not certain,
because cloth is rarely preserved at archaeological sites. Now
discoveries at a cave in the Republic of Georgia, reported on page
1359 of this week's issue of Science, suggest that this skill was
acquired more than 30,000 years ago.