Tiny 40,000-Year-Old Yarn Made By Neanderthals Is Earliest Evidence Of Fiber Technology

Photograph of the cord fragment taken by digital microscopy (the fragment is approximately 6.2 mm long and 0.5 mm wide). © C2RMF

Madison Dapcevich 09 Apr 2020, 16:00

A tiny piece of string measuring smaller than a pea woven together 40,000-52,000 years ago by Neanderthals has been discovered in a large cave in the south of France, making it the first known evidence of humans creating yarn. This adds to the growing evidence Neanderthals may have been smarter than we’ve been giving them credit for.

An international team of researchers found the 6-millimeter-long cord fragment attached to a thin flint stone while excavating the prehistoric rock cave of Abri du Maras. It’s a rare find given that perishable items typically disintegrate throughout the millennia – a rarer find yet in that it is now the oldest evidence of textile technology. The three-ply cord fragment may have been wrapped around a tool handle or was part of a net or bag, though it’s entirely possible that the string and flint may have just been found together by coincidence. Regardless, such fiber would have “become an indispensable part of daily life” in its use of making clothing, mats, boats, and other essential items necessary for survival.

Images and microscopic analysis show the three bundles of twisted fibers are plied together to create one cord, proving that they were modified by humans. Spectroscopic analysis indicates that the strands were made of cellulose likely taken from the inner bark of non-flowering plants such as coniferous trees.

SEM photo of Neanderthal cord from Abri du Maras. M-H. Moncel

“The cord fragment from Abri du Maras is the oldest direct evidence of fiber technology to date. Its production demonstrates a detailed ecological understanding of trees and how to transform them into entirely different functional substances. Fiber technology would have been an important part of everyday life and would have influenced seasonal scheduling and mobility,” write the authors in Scientific Reports.

Neanderthals have been generally considered less technologically advanced than modern humans, yet increasing evidence suggests that they employed advanced tools for their time, even diving in the ocean to collect resources necessary for their creation. The early humans also had an affinity for seafood and canoodled with Denisovans – all of which indicate that they may not have been as inferior as previously believed. The findings help scientists to better understand the cognitive abilities of Neanderthals during their time on Earth between 30,000 and 300,000 years ago. 

Close-up of modern flax cordage showing twisted fiber construction. S. Deryck
Modern rope made from grass. B. Hardy

Creating yarn, cord, or string would have meant that Neanderthals understood basic mathematics that are involved in winding the fibers, as well as a knowledge of tree growth and seasonality required to harvest the fibers.

“Furthermore, the production of cordage implies a cognitive understanding of numeracy and context sensitive operational memory. Given the ongoing revelations of Neanderthal art and technology, it is difficult to see how we can regard Neanderthals as anything other than the cognitive equals of modern humans,” added the researchers.

The Abri du Maras cord is twice as old as the twisted fiber fragments discovered at Israel’s Ohalo II site, dated to around 19,000 years ago, which was previously believed to have been the oldest evidence of fiber fragments.

Excavation of Abri du Maras. M-H. Moncel
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