Box 9-1: Through a Glass, Darwinian

The Softer Side of the Stone Age: The Origins of Textiles and Clothing

The terms Paleolithic, Mesolithic and Neolithic, Old, Middle and New Stone Ages respectively have been used to label broad swaths of human cultural development. The use of these terms reflects not only a bias resulting from the archaeological record but it also perpetuates and amplifies a conceptual bias even in the scientists, who should know better. Implements of stone and bone are what remain from the distant past, for the simple reason that they are durable. When we try to reconstruct a picture of the culture and daily existence of the people that left these tools we must keep in mind the fact that what we have is a sample of durable artifacts and not a sample of representative artifacts. Objects such as spear throwers, carved from mammoth tusks and a wealth of stone spear points have fostered the image of late Pleistocene societies that revolved around male big game hunting. Pictorial reconstructions of men and women in these societies typically depict them clad in animal skins.

Evidence that suggested something very different was overlooked. For example, the “Venus” figurines, thought to be fertility icons dating to over 25,000 years, are some of the most extensively studied of all archaeological objects. Yet despite all this study, prominent researchers failed to note features on many of the statuettes that indicated sophisticated clothing. It was not until widespread evidence of weaving technology dating back to over 28,000 years had been discovered that the apparel “worn” by some of the Venus statues could be identified. The carvings depict elaborately woven skirts, bandeaux, belts, and hats (Soffer & Adovasio, 2000).

Until recently, archaeologists had little information on ice age objects that degrade quickly –soft objects such as cordage and basketry–known as "perishable technologies." In 1953, fragments of rope sticking to the wall of Lascaux cave in southwestern France were dated at 15,000 years of age. In 1994, samples of cordage dating to 19,000 years were found in Israel. In 1998, impressions in hardened bits of clay found in the Chech Republic were identified as evidence of prehistoric textiles (rope, nets, baskets, and woven cloth) dating back to 28,000 years (Adovasio, Soffer, & Klima, 1996). Recent findings indicate that these early textile industries were widespread over ice age Europe (Soffer & Adovasio, 2000). The origins of the textile industry may date back to over 40,000 years ago when people learned to twist plant fibers together. This time period marks the beginning of the so-called “Creative Explosion” when wide spread artwork begins to appear.

While woven objects have numerous utilitarian functions such as baskets for carrying foraged plant foods and nets for capturing small game the act of constructing them lends itself to artistic expression. This is particularly true for clothing. Although clothing has an obvious utilitarian function in cold climates, it may have originated as a form of body ornament and display rather than a heat insulator. Many modern hunter-gatherer peoples who live in the tropics wear little or no clothing but put a lot of energy into body adornment in the form of body painting, tattooing, scarification and the use of jewelry. The first Homo sapiens sapiens populations arose in tropical Africa before invading the colder regions of Europe and Asia around 50,000 years ago. Archaeological evidence associated with the anatomically modern humans living in southern Africa 120,000 years ago suggests that ocher pigment was used for body adornment.

It is quite possible that originally, clothing was purely an early form of artistic expression functioning to enhance displays of status and courtship. Exposure to colder and wetter environments would have quickly resulted in a shift to a more functional role for clothing. Weaving technologies would have been readily coopted for clothing production. No matter how utilitarian a particular garment, wearing it effects how others perceive an individual. Consequently, clothing has probably always been either a blending of art and utility or purely a form of art.