the fabric of history

Last night I caught parts of Caveman (starring Ringo Starr & a dinosaur) while playing with the puppy – the daughter & her friend were watching it. Um, er, what can I say? …?? I liked the dinosaur, he had personality & panache 🙂

Anyway, Ringo & the other human cast members were scurrying around (in a sort of troglodytic way – some of them couldn’t remember whether they were supposed to be bipedal or not….) dressed in fetching ensembles of what may or may not have been faux fur which still allowed them to flash quite a bit of flesh. Archetypical caveman get-up, in other words. We can be fairly sure that our ancestors would have done this, although not when the practice originated – but I’d suspect any naked ape living in a cold climate would have hit on some way of keeping warm, so maybe erectus living in China would have wrapped themselves in animal skins. But when did we become more sophisticated, & develop textiles? A paper published in Science last month suggests that the manufacture of cords from plant material was happening around 30,000 years ago.

In 2007 & 2008 Eliso Kvavadze and his colleagues collected 86 clay samples from the floor of a Georgian cave. During the Upper Palaeolithic the cave was lived in by H.sapiens populations over  some thousands of years. Among the many microfossils contained in the clay (pollen, fungal spores, algae and animal hair), they found hundreds of fibres of wild flax that had been twisted and knotted – & in some cases dyed. While cords made from the fibres could have been used in a variety of ways, the fact that some of them were coloured led the team (Kvavadze et all) to hypothesise that they’d been used to manufacture textiles. While this may sound a bit tenuous, there does seem to be a bit of supporting evidence; the presence of animal hair, the remains of skin beetles (which attack preserved skins) & the spores of a fungus that these days grows on & destroys fabric. So, if this interpretation’s correct (& hopefully there’ll be other, similar finds), then our ancestors were beginning to manufacture textiles not long after they migrated out of Africa & into Georgia around 30,000 years ago.

E.Kvavadze, O.Bar-Josef, A.Belfer-Cohen, E.Boaretto, N.Jakeli, Z.Matskevich & T.Meshveliani (2009) 30,000-year-old wild flax fibres. Science 325: 1359

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