Woven clothing was being produced on looms 27,000 years ago, far earlier than had been thought, scientists say.
It had been thought that the first farmers developed weaving 5,000 to 10,000 years ago.
But Professor Olga Soffer, of the University of Illinois, is about to publish details in the journal Current Anthropology of 90 fragments of clay that have impressions from woven fibres.
Professor Soffer revealed some her findings recently when she said that a 25,000-year-old figurine was wearing a woven hat.
If confirmed, her work could change our understanding of distant ancestors, the so-called Ice Age hunters of the Upper Palaeolithic Stone Age.
The evidence was obtained from a number of sites in the Czech Republic.
They were the sporadic homes of the Gravettian people who roamed between Southern Russia and Spain between 22,000 and 29,000 years ago scratching out a living on a semi-frozen landscape.
Close-up, the impression left by the fibres is clearly visible
“Other impressions may have been caused by deliberate action, such as lining a basket with clay to make it watertight,” said Professor Soffer.
A detailed examination of the impressions reveals a large variety of weaving techniques. There are open and closed twines, plain weave and nets. Professor Soffer told BBC News Online that twining can be done by hand but plain weave needed a loom.
It may be that many stone artifacts found in settlements may not be objects of art as had been supposed but parts of an ancient loom, which should now be considered as the first machine to be made after the wheel and aids such as the axe, club, and flint knife.
This research could force a re-evaluation of our view of ancient man, who lived tens of thousands of years ago, before the last Ice Age had ended and before the invention of agriculture.
The traditional view is of the male Ice Age hunters working in groups to kill large prey such as mammoths. But this may be a distorted and incomplete view of their lives.
This imprint in clay may have been left by a woven basket
All that scientists have from these ancient times are mostly solid remains such as stone, ivory and bone. Now they have evidence of textiles.
The discovery that they developed weaving as early as 27,000 years ago means that we must consider the role that women and children may have played more carefully.
The possibility that they made nets has fascinating implications according to Professor Soffer. It may be that nets were used by women and children to catch small prey such as hares and foxes.
By catching food this way, women and children could have made all the difference to their communities’ food budgets, allowing a surplus to be generated that permitted society to grow.
Further revelations are to be expected in this area of research. There are recent reports that fragments of burnt textiles have been found adhering to pieces of flint.
Bone needles such as these have been found dating back to over 25,000 years old. As one specialist in this field, Olga Soffer, pointed out, they are in no way strong enough to punch their way through hide or leather, but they will go through cloth. The standard explanation to this before was that the hole must have been made by a stone tool and the needle only used to guide the thread. However, the existence of loomed cloth would now make it more likely that they were used in the conventional way. At least one buried body was covered with tiny beads, suggesting they were sewn onto fabric that disintegrated, leaving only the beads, as beads were often found sewn onto hide clothing in graves, sometimes in their thousands. The most likely source for the plant fiber is nettle, that was use into the medieval times in Europe to make clothing.
As you can see from this collection of paleolithic Venus figurines from Kostenki in Russia, some form of woven band around the neck and waist seemed to be common. The rear view of the first lady clearly shows a hat with hair beneath.The partial figure in limestone at the end seems to be wearing a pair of woven handcuffs. These clothes wouldn’t have had any functional value, they were probably more social signals.
This is an illustration of how the the Venus of Willendorf’s hat might of looked. It’s a crop from this site . There’s a common misconception that these people were wandering around in crude furs using clubs, but the evidence shows they were more like they were like the plains Indians in America, but slightly more advanced in cloth technology.
For example, string skirts, as can be seen very clearly under the huge buttocks of this Venus (Lespugue), have been worn until relatively recently in Europe. This picture is a replica of one dated 6,000 BC. The woven top section could have been made on a simple tablet loom, like the one shown next to it. They were worn until the bronze age for ceremonial gymnastics in Denmark, as seen in the burial of Egtved girl.
Up until recently in a few places in Eastern Europe, girls were expected to start wearing string skirts at puberty, and they weren’t allowed to wear them before. So it’s probably more a social or ritual signal of sexual maturity and fertility in these stone age art pieces.