A set of 120,000 years old bone tools found in North Africa appears to be some of the oldest solid evidence of cloth-making in the world, marking a milestone in the story of humanity’s cultural and cognitive development (and a blow to the longstanding era of nakedness).
The origin of clothing is not well-understood, simply because furs, leathers, and other organic garments have a bad habit of degrading over the millennia. Tools, however, can survive well in the archaeological record.
As reported in the journal iScience, the tools were discovered during an excavation of 120,000 to 90,000-year-old deposits at Contrebandiers Cave, found along the Atlantic Coast of modern-day Morocco. Anthropologists discovered roughly 12,000 bone fragments, over 60 of which were animal bones that had been carved, chiseled, and shaped by humans for use as tools in a particular fashion.
“On these bone tools there are striations that are the result of use, and the sheen on the ends of the bone tools is the result of repeated use against skin. Bone tools with this shape are still used today to prepare pelts, because they do not pierce the skin, they are durable, and they are effective at removing connecting tissues without damage to the pelt,” Dr Emily Hallett, lead study author from the Pan African Evolution Research Group at Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History told IFLScience.
Together with these distinctive bone tools, they also discovered carnivore bones that feature distinctive cut marks. The shape and patterns of these cuts suggest they were not used for meat butchering, but most likely for fashioned fur and leather to make clothes.
“For fur, early humans at Contrebandiers Cave were skinning carnivores, and in this cave there are three species of carnivores with skinning marks on their bones: Rüppell's fox, golden jackal, and wildcat. The cut marks on these carnivore bones are restricted to areas where incisions are made for fur removal, and there are no cut marks on the areas of the skeleton associated with meat removal,” explained Hallet.
Based on dating of the surrounding sediments, the age of the tools could be up to 120,000 years old. If true, it provides evidence that humans were making clothes in North Africa as far back as 120,000 years ago.
The advent of clothing is likely to be older, however. Hallet explains that previous genetic studies have shown clothing lice diverged from head louse ancestors as early as 170,000 years ago, suggesting clothes were widely used then. That said, researchers have not seen a site featuring leather and fur working bone tools with skinned carnivore skeletal at this age before.
"I think it is reasonable to assume that European Neanderthals and other sister species were making clothing from animal skins well before 120,000 years ago, but so far we haven't found a co-association of leather and fur working bone tools with skinned carnivore skeletal remains in Neanderthal sites," Harnett noted.
Cloth-making tools weren’t the only sign of complex human culture discovered at the Contrebandiers Cave. To the researchers’ surprise, they also discovered a whale tooth — which perhaps belonged to a gigantic sperm whale — that shows signs of human use. Perhaps, Harnett hints, the rare object was the prized possession of a prehistoric human some 120,000 years ago.
“There are records of beached sperm whales on the Atlantic Coast of Morocco, and because there is only one whale tooth in the Contrebandiers assemblage, it is safe to assume this tooth was collected from a beached whale then transported to the cave by humans,” Harnett explains. “The whale tooth is really interesting because whale teeth were commonly used as personal ornaments in much younger prehistoric and historic contexts. “