Stone Age twining unraveled

New finds suggest that people used plant fibers for sewing and other purposes in western Asia by 32,000 years ago

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.

STRUNG OUT 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

TWINE SITE Scientists unearthed twisted and knotted flax fibers suggestive of Stone Age twine at Dzudzuana Cave in Georgia. Science/AAAS

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 activities flourished.

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 dried mud or clay bearing textile impressions, Good says.

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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