Indigenous input revealed early hints of fiber making in the tropics

To decipher marks on ancient stone tools, researchers turned to the Philippines’ Palaw’an people

A photo of three ancient stone artifacts from the island of Palawan in the Philippines on a black background.

An analysis of markings on ancient stone artifacts (a selection shown) from the island of Palawan in the Philippines suggest the stones were tools used to make plant-based fibers and other textiles.

© The National Museum of the Philippines

On the island of Palawan in the Philippines, a cave has yielded reams of ancient artifacts, including thousands of stone tools. No traces of hewn trees or stripped bark or carved meat remain to hint at what the tools may have been used for. But they do bear signs of wear and tear, prehistoric marks from the tasks they once aided.

A photo of archaeologist Hermine Xhauflair (center) and colleagues gathered on the island of Palawan in the Philippines with the ocean and another island in the background.
Archaeologist Hermine Xhauflair (center) and colleagues gather on the island of Palawan in the Philippines, where ancient stone tools had been recovered from a cave. Xhauflair spent months living among Indigenous Palaw’an communities, studying how artisans use tools for various tasks in an effort to reveal how the ancient artifacts may have been used.H. Xhauflair

To archaeologist Hermine Xhauflair and her colleagues, these marks can serve as fingerprints, identifying the ways past humans used the tools. For help deciphering these fingerprints, Xhauflair’s team turned to the Indigenous Palaw’an people, who live near the site where the artifacts were discovered and share a deep ancestral knowledge of how to process natural resources on the island.  

“I wanted to learn from the experts of the forest,” says Xhauflair, of the University of the Philippines Diliman.

Thanks to that collaboration, some of the oldest evidence of fiber making in the tropics now goes back to 39,000 years, the researchers report June 30 in PLOS ONE. Access to fiber technologies may have opened up all sorts of possibilities for nets, traps and boats, the scientists speculate (SN: 8/28/19).

One of the first steps in the study involved securing an introduction to the Palaw’an. Xhauflair presented her research plan to the councils of elders of several villages. The councils granted her and her colleagues permission to live with Pala’wan communities for three months and record craftspeople as they used tools for various tasks, including processing plant-based fibers.

After dissecting the techniques and identifying the 95 plant species that Palaw’an artisans were recorded using, the researchers built and tested a set of 16 stone tools that resemble those from the cave.

Xhauflair emulated Pala’wan techniques to strip and pull apart layers of plants such as bamboo and palm to make strong, flexible strips and other fibers. Many of the plants and techniques left distinct notches and striations on tool surfaces. Comparing the markings with those on the artifacts revealed striking similarities, which suggests that the ancient tools had been used in fiber making too.

Archaeologist Hermine Xhauflair collaborated with Indigenous Pala’wan communities in the Philippines to figure out what ancient stone tools discovered there may have been used for. Xhauflair used re-created tools and Palaw’an techniques to make plant-based fibers. The process created markings on the tools that are like those of the ancient artifacts.

Remnants of ancient fibers are particularly rare, since the plant materials used to make them tend to decay quickly in the wet, humid tropics. The oldest evidence for fiber making anywhere in the world goes back roughly 120,000 years in Israel.

“The incorporation of Indigenous knowledge and many tool-use experiments on a wide range of fibrous plants give confidence” in the new findings, says archaeologist Richard Fullagar of Flinders University in Adelaide, Australia, who wasn’t involved in the study. “The evidence for cutting fibrous plant parts is strong.”

The likenesses of the markings on the ancient tools to those made using Palaw’an techniques suggest that similar techniques have been used for at least 39,000 years. Whether such techniques have been passed down continuously over generations, or they disappeared and then were relearned, independently, later remains a mystery.

Luis Melecio-Zambrano was the summer 2023 science writing intern at Science News. They are finishing their master’s degree in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz, where they have reported on issues of environmental justice and agriculture.

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