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Scientists Find Oldest Known Human-Made Fibers

September 11, 2009

Archeological excavations in an ancient cave in the Caucasus Mountains of the modern day Republic of Georgia have unearthed flax fibers thought to be more than 34,000 years old.  Scientists say the discovery represents the oldest samples of cloth and thread known to have been used by humans.

The dig””which was collectively led by Ofer Bar Yosef, George Grant MacCurdy and Janet G. B. MacCurdy Professor of Prehistoric Archaeology in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at Harvard University, Tengiz Meshveliani from the Georgian State Museum and Anna Belfer-Cohen from the Hebrew University””unearthed cloth and thread from wild flax plants that researchers say was likely used to make primitive garments, stitch together pieces of leather and bind together packs used by the semi-nomadic peoples as they traveled from one hunting ground to another.

“This was a critical invention for early humans,” explained Bar-Yosef a professor of prehistoric archaeology at Harvard University.

“Making strings and ropes is a sophisticated invention,” he added. “They might have used this fiber to create parts of clothing, ropes, or baskets””for items that were mainly used for domestic activities.  We know that this is wild flax that grew in the vicinity of the cave and was exploited intensively or extensively by modern humans.”

A number of the fibers found showed signs of having been twisted, evidence that they were likely used to make rope and string.  Other samples had been dyed various colors using the pigments from other plants indigenous to the region.

“The colored fibers may indicate that the inhabitants of the cave were engaged in producing colorful textiles,” read the group’s report in this week’s issue of Science. The team also said that they had unearthed evidence that the early hunter-gatherers may have been processing furs and skins at the site as well.

The scientists had originally set out to analyze pollen samples from ancient trees that had drifted into the cave in an effort to understand the changing weather patterns that influenced the migration patterns of our ancient ancestors.  When searching for pollen samples under a microscope, however, the team began to detect the tiny remnants of flax fibers in different layers of clay obtained from the cave floor.

The team then used radiocarbon dating to determine the age of the various layers of clay.  In addition to the oldest, 34,000-year old sample, they also found flax fibers from 21,000 and 13,000 years ago, indicating that the cave had been inhabited by humans on more than one occasion.

Bar Yosef and colleagues have been working in this cave since 1996, returning annually to continue their research and discover as much about these ancient peoples as they can from the secrets held in this time capsule.

“We were looking to find when the cave was occupied, what was the nature of the occupation by those early hunter-gatherers, where did they go hunting and gathering food, what kind of stone tools they used, what types of bone and antler tools they made and how they used them, whether they made beads and pendants for body decoration, and so on,” explained Bar Yosef on his team’s extensive research.

“This was a wonderful surprise, to discover these ancient flax fibers at the end of this excavation project.”

Image 2: A team of archaeologists and paleobiologists has discovered flax fibers in these microscopic soil samples. The flax, which would have been collected from the wild and not farmed, is believed to be more than 34,000 years old, making these fibers the oldest known to have been used by humans. Science/AAAS

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Scientists Find Oldest Known Human-Made Fibers


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