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Digging the ancient closet

old botanical illustration of flax, click for larger image
Botanical illustration from 1887

Who invented fashion? The Egyptians had it, and the Romans, and ditto the modern Italians. Now we hear that people living in the Caucasus Mountains between 34,000 and 29,000 years ago were spinning flax into threads, strings or cord. Exactly what they did with the flax is lost to history, but the new report is the earliest evidence for the spinning of any fiber.

Fibers that are spun into cords would be extraordinarily helpful to the hunter-gatherers living in this pre-agricultural period, says Ofer Bar-Yosef, an anthropologist at Harvard University who contributed to a study published this week in Science. "Cord is one of those inventions that made modern humans more mobile," Bar-Yosef says. "Hunter-gatherers traveled light, but they needed to carry bows, arrows, atlatls [spear throwers] and spears, and this was facilitated by using cord."

And maybe their copies of Vogue, for all we know ...

Because most organic material rots long before archeologists can get their hands on it, Bar-Yosef says that until now, there has been no evidence for cords from this early period, long before the inventions of agriculture, cities, writing and organized warfare, to say nothing about the diktats of fashion.

The first author of the report, Eliso Kvavadz, is an expert in identifying microscopic remains at the National Museum of Georgia, and thus "[she] could tell us which trees and plants were growing in the area," says Bar-Yosef, "and she was also able to identify signs of the fungi, bacteria and insects which cause cloth to deteriorate in the ground."

Map shows location of Georgia, northeast of Turkey on the Black Sea

Fashions for a caveman?

The dig, at a cave in Georgia, focused on several layers of clay, including one sandwiched between material dating to 36,000 and 31,000 years ago. The researchers washed 27 batches of clay from this layer, then put 488 flax fibers under the microscope, which revealed that 13 had been spun, and 58 had been dyed.

Photo from inside a dark cave shows at two people looking into distance, with many green trees.
Photo: © Science/AAAS
Microscopic flax fibers found in this cave, in the nation of Georgia, provide the first evidence of spinning.
Four pictures of microscopic views of fibers against green and grey backgrounds
© Science/AAAS
Flax fibers from between 34,000 and 29,000 years ago, excavated from the Dzudzuana cave in Georgia. Bar shows length in microns. 1: Twisted flax fibers 2-4 Unraveled flax fibers (note the neat cuts at ends).

More than 100 plants in the Caucasus can be used for dying, Bar-Yosef says, but colored fibers were hardly the only sign that it was people, not wind or water, that had schlepped the flax into the cave. The cave also contained thousands of stone tools and at least 200 bone tools. "We found tools shaped from animal bones, that could be used for macramé [which makes knotted, three-dimensional structures]," says Bar-Yosef.

The new find answers a long-standing frustration. "I have 50 years' experience digging, and you find these bone tools in many excavations going back to prehistory, but you do not find what they did with them," Bar-Yosef says. "You know they had to be used for making cords or piercing holes in hides, but you cannot find the partner material. That's why this discovery is so exciting. Now we have evidence that a generation of people [made] clothing."

Woman in pastoral dress handling bunch of flax fibers next to wooden equipment for linen preparation
Photo: Anneli Salo
Flax is an old technology, but nobody knew exactly how old -- until now. This woman is breaking flax in Tuusula, Finland, to prepare it for conversion into linen.
Black and white drawing of a primitive needle, 4 centimeters long, with a small hole on one end.

A long-sought victory for fashionistas?

Of course, we are talking microscopic fibers, not Yves St. Laurent, and various fungi and animals apparently obliterated whatever wraps, robes and serapes were created in the cave. "I wish I could say we found the clothes," says Bar-Yosef. "We just found fibers under the microscope, but this is positive evidence -- the earliest evidence in the whole world -- for spinning flax, and for spinning any fiber."

A bone needle from the Upper Paleolithic. Could this have been used to sew with linen thread?

During spinning, fibers are twisted one direction while the whole cord is rotated in the opposite direction, a process that converts loose fibers into a strong cord. The invention of spinning, which can be done either by hand or with an apparatus, could have played a crucial role in human development, Bar-Yosef says. "If you think about a group of hunter-gatherers, who are constantly moving around, they need cord for packages, for simple baskets, for structures to carry a baby, and to make leather clothing," he says.

 A close-up of a blue flower of the flax plant against an unfocused natural background.

Making cord from the wild flax plant may have helped modern humans displace the Neanderthals from Europe in just a few thousand years, Bar-Yosef adds. "We want to understand why modern humans were able to move into Europe so quickly. We know flax was growing in the wild the same way that cereals were originally. In the process of cultivation, cereals became domesticated, and that's what happened to flax. If you were living 30,000 years ago, and knew what to do with flax, it made your life much easier," he says.

Blue flax is often considered a subspecies of the Eurasian flax.
Photo: US NPS

David J. Tenenbaum

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• 30,000-Year-Old Wild Flax Fibers, by E. Kvavadze et al, Science, Sept. 10, 2009.

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