how old is a piece of string?

Among other things, I like to knit. My mother got me started, years ago, & I worked up to quite complex Fair Isle patterns on jerseys & shawls. But the kids weren’t all that keen on wearing woolly stuff once all the new ‘manmades’ came on the market, & a well-made jersey lasts a Long Time (30 years, in the case of one of mine), so the knitting took a bit of a back seat & I’ve only recently got back into it.

Anyway, I was talking about my latest project ** with some friends and Renee said, "I greatly admire people who can take two sticks and some fluffy string and turn it into clothes." At which point I thought: I bet that from a cultural evolution perspective, you could characterise the invention of string as a rather significant innovation. After all, sans string (or some form of fibre – & this would include animal sinew as well as plant fibre) there’d be no woven fabrics; no sewn garments; no nets or string bags to catch things or carry the catch home; no bows (& thus no arrows); no adzes bound to hafts or knives to handles; no sticks tied together into tripods or shelter frames… 

By itself, the idea of twisting thread or cordage isn’t all that complex, in technological terms. But in cognitive terms? Well, that’s something quite different, because of the abstract thought required to generate concepts of what that string could be. And in addition, there’s the actual manufacturing complexity involved: 

Process complexity can be illustrated by the example of a bag made out of string consisting of twisted grass. In terms of materials, the bag simply consists of string, which in turn consists of grass, and it can be described as low in complexity. In terms of process, however, the bag might involve tying a series of knots for the main body of the bag, and a series of different knots for the mouth of the bag, with perhaps a drawstring as well, and is likely to require considerable time and skill to manufacture; in this respect, the bag is high in complexity (Rugg, 2011).

The problem is, of course, that fibres don’t tend to survive well over long periods of time: currently the earliest-known remains of actual fibre products date back ‘only’ around 34,000 years‘, which is still amazingly old for relatively easily-degraded materials.  (See also this earlier post of mine.) This is certainly nowhere near as long as the other artefacts with which they may have been associated, although those associated artefacts may still speak to the existence of fibre technologies.  For example, Shea & Sisk (2010) suggest on the basis of what appear to be ancient arrowheads that "complex projectile technology" (bows & arrows, but also spear-throwers & the darts they were used to fling) were developed at least 50,000 years ago (possibly even longer). 

These authors also suggest that the technological advances that fibres enabled may well have had a significant impact on our evolution and dispersal; for example, through improving hunting efficiency. These tools would also have made hunting less perilous, allowing hunters to kill at a distance  – & so, alas, also had an impact on our ability to kill each other. There’s an interesting graphic showing the interplay between genetic, environmental, cognitive & cultural factors and their potential for human expansion here.

So there you go, Renee: my bits of fluffy string (& perhaps even the two sticks I use with them) have a history that goes back at least 50,000 years 🙂 

G.Rugg (2011) Quantifying technological innovation. PaleoAnthropology 2011:154−165. Doi:10.4207/PA.2011.ART49 (NB written from a mathematical perspective)

J.J.Shea & M.L.Sisk (2010) Complex Projectile Technology and Homo sapiens Dispersal into Western Eurasia PaleoAnthropology 2010: 100−122. doi:10.4207/PA.2010.ART36


** This is what started the discussion.

2 thoughts on “how old is a piece of string?”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *