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Clothes Make the (Hu) Man

first clothes Dzudzuana Cave

The first clothes, worn at least 70,000 years ago and perhaps much earlier, were probably made of animal skins and helped protect early humans from the ice ages. Then at some point people learned to weave plant fibers into textiles. But when? The answer is not certain, because cloth is rarely preserved at archaeological sites. Now discoveries at a cave in the Republic of Georgia suggest that this skill was acquired more than 30,000 years ago.

On page 1359 of this issue of Science (Vol. 325, Issue 5946), researchers from Georgia, Israel, and the United States, led by archaeologist Ofer BarYosef of Harvard University, report more than 1000 fibers of the flax plant from Dzudzuana Cave in the foothills of the Caucasus Mountains. The microscopic fibers were found in layers radiocarbon dated to as early as 36,000 years ago, about the time when modern humans migrated into the area from Africa. A small number of fibers are colored black, gray, turquoise, and pink, and the team concludes that they were dyed.

“The finds are extremely important,” says archaeologist Dani Nadel of the University of Haifa in Israel, who is not a member of the team and agrees that the fibers are likely traces of woven material. “They provide the oldest example of their kind ever found at an archaeological site.” Olga Soffer, an anthropologist at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, says that although other European sites nearly as old have produced apparent impressions of textile remains, “we can’t be sure what plants were used. In Georgia, we have actual identifiable plant fiber remains, which is great.”

The human occupants of the cave left behind stone tools and animal bones as well as flax. The team thinks the flax was used to make garments as well as woven baskets, because it was associated with skin beetles and moth larvae that infest decaying textiles, as well as spores of a fungus known to grow on clothes. The team also found a few twisted and colored fibers of wool from a goat species whose bones were found in the cave.

Nadel questions whether the fibers were dyed, saying that they may have taken on color from other materials through natural processes. “Flax is notoriously difficult to dye,” agrees Willeke Wendrich, a textile expert at the University of California, Los Angeles. But archaeologist Elizabeth Barber of Occidental College in Los Angeles points out that “the variety of colors… suggests this was intentional, not accidental. You wouldn’t get the local soil staining them in so many different colors.” Whatever the case, Wendrich says, the discoveries at Dzudzuana Cave and other early sites suggest that “plant fibers were used in a very sophisticated way, very early on.”

Balter, Michael. “Clothes make the (Hu) man.” (2009): 1329-1329.