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News of an exciting and illuminating discovery in Georgia, which has revealed that people living 34,000 years ago had mastered the art of making materials from processed wild flax, prompting speculation that such items as ropes, containers and even clothes and shoes wereDzudzuana Cave routinely manufactured by anatomically modern humans.

Back in July I wrote a brief post concerning the origins of basketry, and the impact such technologies may have had had on our prehistoric ancestors dating at least far back as the Palaeolithic, and this week comes apparent confirmation of the idea that although at the time the oldest known traces of textile date back 26,000 years ago, there was the distinct possibility that people living at least 10,000 years earlier may also have manufactured items from plant materials, when and where such were available.

The recent paper, ‘30,000-Year-Old Wild Flax Fibers’ reports on recent research conducted by Ofer Bar-Yosef et al in the Upper Palaeolithic levels of Dzudzuana Cave, explained briefly in the abstract:

A unique finding of wild flax fibers from a series of Upper Paleolithic layers at Dzudzuana Cave, located in the foothills of the Caucasus, Georgia, indicates that prehistoric hunter-gatherers were making cords for hafting stone tools, weaving baskets, or sewing garments. Radiocarbon dates demonstrate that the cave was inhabited intermittently during several periods dated to 32 to 26 thousand years before the present (kyr B.P.), 23 to 19 kyr B.P., and 13 to 11 kyr B.P. Spun, dyed, and knotted flax fibers are common. Apparently, climatic fluctuations recorded in the cave’s deposits did not affect the growth of the plants because a certain level of humidity was sustained.

The story is taken up by PhysOrg, where we see that the flax fibres were discovered following examination of clay extracted from the cave deposits, leading the archaeologists to speculate that they were the remains of manufactured items which have long since disintegrated:

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.

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…

“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.

As we saw earlier in the year when Nicholas Conard and others found the remains of Aurignacian flutes at Hohle Fels, their search was made all the easier because they had made similar discoveries years earlier, and so knew what to look for – there was speculation at the time that similar artefacts in other caves may have been missed simply because no-one suspected their presence, and any fragmentary remains of other flutes may have been mistakenly discarded without further consideration.

The dating of 34,000 years for the Georgian fibres corresponds to the European Aurignacian, so it will be interesting to see if further research reveals similar traces of fibres at other locations across in northwestern Europe or Iberia, and crucially, the earliest times they date to.

And we have also seen recently that the use of pierced shell beads, some of which were covered in pigment, and used for body decoration, have been found at various locations in Africa dating back tens of thousands of years earlier, a behavioural trait described as modern, that appears to have begun and mysteriously ended a good 30,000 years before the European Upper Palaeolithic. Whether people in Africa living 70,000 to 100,000 years ago had also exploited plant materials in the same way as the Upper Palaeolithic Georgians hasn’t yet been demonstrated, but on the circumstantial evidence so far, cannot be entirely discounted, as they would surely have had the cognitive ability and manual dexterity to spin, twist and dye plant fibres to their will.

A strong case has been made to suggest that the European Aurignacian was a behavioural innovation of anatomically modern humans, with little or no Neanderthal input from the end of the Middle Palaeolithic, with the further implication that Neanderthals weren’t cognitively advanced enough to create or even have any use for such items as musical instruments. However, we know nothing of how Neanderthals chose to dress themselves, but despite this gap in the knowledge they are frequently depicted wearing little more than ill-fitting attire tailored from animal hides, utterly useless in chilly weather, for keeping warm at night, and probably not much help in attracting prospective partners either.

It remains to be seen whether any such fibres will turn up in Neanderthal occupation sites, and I’m not even sure whether past researchers would have even considered even searching for such materials, assuming of course that  there were suitable conditions for their preservation, as has been the case at Dzudzuana Cave.

image of Dzudzuana Cave from Professor Anna Belfer-Cohen, one of the authors of the study.

Reference: 30,000-Year-Old Wild Flax Fibers Eliso Kvavadze, Ofer Bar-Yosef, Anna Belfer-Cohen, Elisabetta Boaretto, Nino Jakeli, Zinovi Matskevich, and Tengiz Meshveliani (11 September 2009)     Science 325 (5946), 1359. [DOI: 10.1126/science.1175404] Dyed flax fibers from 30,000 years ago show that humans in the Caucasus were making colored twine at that time.

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