A four-holed piece of ivory provides a glimpse into ancient rope-making

Four or five people might have worked together to make meters-long rope in minutes

A carved ivory tusk with holes along its length, seen from four different angles

A 20-centimeter-long piece of mammoth ivory sporting four carved holes, shown here from different angles, helped scientists untangle how Central Europeans may have made rope 35,000 to 40,000 years ago.

N.J. Conard et al/Science Advances 2024

A mammoth ivory tool unearthed in central Europe has offered a peek at how teamwork enabled Stone Age folks to make thick, sturdy ropes.

Excavations and sediment screening at southwestern Germany’s Hohle Fels Cave in 2015 produced the rare find. Researchers assembled 15 mammoth ivory pieces recovered from the site into a nearly complete rope-making implement. The final product, about 20 centimeters long, featured four circular holes containing carved spiral grooves, archaeologists Nicholas Conard and Veerle Rots report January 31 in Science Advances.

The ivory fragments lay among stone tools and other artifacts from Eurasia’s ancient Aurignacian culture. Radiocarbon dating of animal bones bearing stone tool marks places these discoveries at between 35,000 and 40,000 years old.

To understand the tool’s use, Conard, of the University of Tübingen in Germany, and Rots, of the University of Liège in Belgium, turned to the literature. Suggestions that four similar mammoth ivory artifacts, previously found at other German Aurignacian sites, were ritual objects or tools for straightening wooden shafts or working leather left the researchers unconvinced.

Microscopic wear and plant residue on both the Hohle Fels artifact and an earlier find indicated that plant fibers had been pulled through the holes, guided by clockwise grooves, suggesting the tool was used for making rope. Evidence of string-making dates to between 52,000 and 41,000 years ago among European Neandertals (SN: 4/9/20).

The researchers conducted rope-making experiments with four-holed replicas of the ancient finds made from wood, animal bones, a warthog’s split tooth and bronze. This process involved running animal sinews and five types of plant fibers through the tool openings. Thin, hand-twisted ropes, each held by one person, were fed through the holes. Another person held the implement while someone pulled and twisted the fiber strands exiting the openings into a single piece of rope.

Four or five people typically generated five meters of strong, flexible rope in 10 minutes, the scientists say. Cattail leaves, the team found, worked particularly well as rope material.

These findings do not tie up all the loose ends regarding ancient rope production. “But for the first time,” Conard says, “we have documented artifacts likely used to make rope and demonstrated how they worked.”

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.

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