Discovery of bone tools suggests humans were already making clothes 120,000 years ago

The manufacture of clothing and the preparation of textiles may seem obvious, but in reality, it requires preparation steps requiring technique, rigor, and specially designed tools. Humans are distinguished from other species by their exceptional intelligence, but when do the origins of clothing go back? Researchers have discovered, in a cave in Morocco, what may be the oldest evidence of clothing making, dating back to 120,000 years ago.

Anthropologist and archaeologist Emily Hallett and her team of researchers, from the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Germany, made the discovery while studying a number of bone fragments found in the Smugglers Cave. , an important archaeological site located on the Atlantic coast of Morocco, near Temara. The study was published in the journal iScience.

Over 60 human-made animal bones

Of the 12,000 bone fragments found at the site, Hallett identified more than 60 animal bones that had been shaped by humans for use as tools. The patterns of the cut marks on the bones matched tools found at other archaeological sites that had been used to process leather.

A bone tool from the cave, used for working leather. © Jacopo Niccolò Cerasoni, 2021

« It is extremely unlikely that organic materials such as leather and fur will survive in such ancient deposits, so as archaeologists we end up with evidence, which includes tools and animal bones that keep skinning marks “Hallett told ScienceAlert. « We can put this evidence together and suggest that humans used bone tools to prepare leather and fur that were most likely used for clothing. ».

However, the researchers note that this evidence is not entirely conclusive. ” These bone tools may have been used to prepare leather for purposes other than clothing, such as storage devices. Added Hallett. The fact remains that clothing made of fur and leather would have been particularly beneficial for humans at this time.

When leaving Africa, the first humans had to face new environments, even habitats with extreme climates. Clothing and other tools likely contributed to the dispersal of humans to new environments around the world. For fur, the humans in the Smugglers Cave would butcher carnivores.

diagram of skinning tools bone preparation furs

diagram of skinning tools bone preparation furs
Carnivores were skinned and bone tools were used to prepare the furs. © Jacopo Niccolò Cerasoni, 2021

« In this cave, there are three species of carnivores with butchering marks on their bones: Rüppell’s fox, golden jackal and wildcat. Said Hallett. ” Cut marks on the bones of these carnivores are limited to areas where incisions are made to remove fur, and there are no cut marks on skeletal areas associated with meat removal. ».

An even older origin of clothing in Africa?

Concerning leather, several species of bovids have been found on the site. ” Bones of hartebeest, aurochs and gazelles have been found in great abundance in the cave, and these animals have also been eaten by humans, as there are cut marks associated with the removal of meat on their bone Added Hallett.

making spatula bone work fur

making spatula bone work fur
To make a spatula, a rib bone is broken off at the ends, split lengthwise, reduced in size, and shaped and then regularized. The polishing of the smugglers cave spatulas is interpreted as the result of use against the inner part of the skin to scrape it, for the preparation of leather or fur. © Jacopo Niccolò Cerasoni, 2021

Hallett believes that given the specialization of these tools, they are likely part of a larger and older tradition. To add weight to this, genetic studies of garment binding, conducted by other researchers, suggest that clothing originates from at least 170,000 years ago in Africa.

« These tools were most likely used for clothing, and it is interesting that both archaeological records and DNA evidence point to an ancient origin in Africa. Adds Hallett. There may still be unknown sites in Africa waiting to be discovered with tools and evidence that could further shed light on the history of human clothing making.

Although this study used 40X magnification to identify signs of wear on bone tools interpreted to have been used for skinning, the researchers did not use 100X-500X magnification to directly determine the contact material (s) on which each bone tool has been used. Such additional analysis could be done in the future, by the same team or by others, in order to provide additional evidence or important details.

Source: iScience
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