Sunday, January 27, 2019


Last year, in a cave above the Inya River’s middle reaches, scientists discovered 20,000-year-old sewing needles. Despite their prehistoric origin, the needles are sophisticated. Not only are they sharp enough to perforate thick animal hides, they possess a needle “eye,” which would have allowed early tailors to thread the needle and sew.

In a new study, published in the December issue of the Journal of Human Evolution, a team of researchers has pieced together what we know about prehistoric garment making using needle artifacts collected around the world, including from the site by the Inya River. Sewing, the analysis reveals, can offer a portal into human technology and cognition in the Upper Paleolithic, a period stretching from 50,000 to 10,000 years ago.

“Many of the needles we discovered were not simply used to manufacture clothes but for embroidery and ornaments. There was an aesthetic role,” says Francesco d’Errico, an anthropologist at the University of Bordeaux in France and a co-author of the study.

In other words, prehistoric humans were not only concerned with finding warmth in wintry weather—they also may have dressed in order to communicate social identity, display tribal affiliations, and, indeed, to look good.

The researchers found that humans developed eyed sewing needles in what is now Siberia and China as early as 45,000 years ago. In Europe, clothing fabrication likely began around 26,000 years ago; it probably began some 13,000 years ago in North America.

For the new study, the research team examined Paleolithic period needles from a dig site in China. In addition, d’Errico and his colleagues uncovered evidence of extensive production sites for needles and garments. For example, at a site in the northern deserts of China, researchers extracted needles that were more than 10,000 years old, along with tools that may have aided their creation. Some of the needles are wide and flat, perhaps used to stitch thick hides. Others are narrow and circular, which may indicate they were used for delicate work such as embroidery.

The researchers also discovered that some of the world’s most sophisticated early stitch work may have come from North America. Sites in eastern Wyoming and central Washington yielded 13,000-year-old needles that have a striking level of refinement and suggest what the researchers call a “never previously achieved mastery” in needle production.

There’s other evidence for decorative dress in the Upper Paleolithic. For example, in a previous project, d’Errico and his colleague Marian Vanhaeren, an anthropologist at the University of Bordeaux, identified shells on the remains of a child in the Madeleine Cave in France, a site they attribute to the late Magdalenian period, around 10,000 years ago. Tiny holes hint that someone stitched these ornaments to the child’s clothing, though the textile itself has since disintegrated.

At the same time that the needle unleashed an aesthetic revolution in clothing, it might have signaled two other developments integral to human prehistory: the ability to travel long distances and the capacity for complex thought.


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