A prehistoric method for tailoring clothes may be written in bone

A punctured bone fragment predates eyed needles in Western Europe by about 15,000 years

A photo of a punctured animal bone fragment on a black background.

A nearly 40,000-year-old punctured animal bone fragment (shown) found in Spain was a leatherwork punch board bearing holes from piercing animal hide, a new study suggests.

Francesco d'Errico and Luc Doyon

An animal bone fragment full of human-made pits hints at how prehistoric people in Western Europe may have crafted clothing.

The nearly 40,000-year-old artifact probably served as a punch board for leatherwork, researchers report April 12 in Science Advances. They suggest that the bone fragment rested beneath animal hide while an artisan pricked holes in the material, possibly for seams. If so, it’s the earliest-known tool of its kind and predates eyed needles in the region by about 15,000 years.

Found at an archaeological site south of Barcelona, the roughly 11-centimeter-long bone fragment contains 28 punctures scattered across one flat side, with 10 of them aligned and fairly evenly spaced.

The marks don’t seem to have been a notation system or decoration, given that some holes are hard to see and the bone fragment wasn’t otherwise shaped, says archaeologist Luc Doyon of the University of Bordeaux in France. He thought leatherwork could have made the marks. But it wasn’t until he visited a cobbler shop and saw one of the artisan’s tools that the hypothesis solidified, guiding Doyon’s next steps.

He and colleagues attempted to re-create the artifact’s holes by puncturing cattle rib bones with tools including sharpened flint, horns and antlers. Piercing leather atop bone with a burin — a pointed stone chisel — by tapping it with a hammerlike tool created pits that resemble those on the bone fragment.

Further experiments suggested the artifact’s 10 orderly punctures were made by the same tool and intentionally aligned and regularly spaced. This hints that holes were created in the leather to make a seam sewn with a threading tool.

Scientists knew that humans wore clothing long before the oldest-known eyed needles existed (SN: 4/20/10). “What [the new finding] tells us is that the first modern humans who lived in Europe had the technology in their toolkit for making fitted clothes,” Doyon says.

McKenzie Prillaman was the Spring 2023 science writing intern at Science News. She holds a bachelor’s degree in neuroscience with a minor in bioethics from the University of Virginia and a master’s degree in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz.

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