Keep flax from fire

The paper about the flax fibers found by Eliso Kvavadze and colleagues in Dzudzuana Cave, Republic of Georgia, is a one-pager. The good kind of one-pager – the kind where you can understand the whole thing. If I didn’t hate the misuse of supporting online material so much, I think I might wish that every paper were required to have a one-page synopsis like this. The press accounts about the paper would have been better if they’d just quoted the whole thing!

I find this paper very exciting. Here, in one very clear set of observations, we get a glimpse of a whole human activity pattern. Before this, we knew only hints about fiber processing, later in time and from only one site. Nowadays, most people don’t think much about the technology in their T-shirts and jeans. If you’re not a fiber artist or knitter, you may not have a concept of just how much work went into clothing and other fiber objects before the Industrial Revolution.

Here, in these little clay samples, is a clear picture of hours upon hours of work. You don’t get a variety of color dyes, systematic flax gathering and twisted threads without a sustained tradition. This was technology that contributed directly to survival – keeping people warm, and helping them fit into their families, clans or tribes. Calories saved by clothing, mats, or padding were calories that did not have to be hunted or gathered. Few technologies could contribute so directly to social status as the kind and quality of clothing. We aren’t seeing the beginning of that technology at Dzudzuana, we’re seeing it already in a highly developed state.

Flax fibers by themselves would not be newsworthy. Humans gathered plant materials long before 30,000 years ago. Several caves show good evidence of many species of gathered grasses and forbs. We assume that these people, including Neandertals, were using plants as bedding or floor covering materials.

What makes the Dzuzuana fibers different is the evidence that they were incorporated into textiles:

A few of the fibers are colored and appear to have been dyed. A wide range of natural pigments was available to the Upper Paleolithic occupants of the cave, including roots and other plant parts (5). The color range includes yellow, red, blue, violet, black, brown, green, and khaki.

It’s like Old Navy! More:

All 27 clay samples from unit D produced fibers of flax (N = 488) (table S2); some were spun (N = 13) and dyed (N = 58), the colors are mostly black-to-gray and turquoise. One of the threads is twisted. The complete fibers are long (>200-m) and composed of segments of smaller lengths. Individual fibers are linear with thin and translucent walls. Several ends of both complete and disbanded fibers were cut across (Fig. 1, 1 to 7).

On the whole, it’s very convincing evidence of fabrics. Michael Balter’s accompanying news piece was able to dig up some doubters about the extent of dyeing, and maybe a more careful study of the chemical pigments will be possible.

The paper also includes a hint about other fiber processing at the site:

The combination of flax fibers, some tur hair, and microremains of skin beetles (fig. S2) and moth can be interpreted as an evidence for processing of fur, skin, and cloth. This conclusion is supported by the presence of spores of the Chaetomium fungus (fig. S2), usually growing on clothes and other textiles and unfortunately destroying them (6).

How early does it go? Is this a novel invention with the Upper Paleolithic, as has often been suggested of string, nets, and other fiber creations? Were fabrics utilized outside the northern latitudes earlier in time?

Possibly, the fungal evidence might be found at even earlier sites, maybe even by using metagenomic techniques. It’s reasonable to think that Neandertals and other early people made extensive use of skin and hair. Woven or knotted fabric is different, but possibly there is a continuum between natural animal fibers and plant fibers that connects them.

References:

Balter M. 2009. Clothes make the (hu)man. Science 325:1329. doi:10.1126/science.325_1329a

Kvavadze E, Bar-Yosef O, Belfer-Cohen A, Boaretto E, Jakeli N, Matskevich Z, Meshviliani T. 2009. 30,000-year-old wild flax fibers. Science 325:1359. doi:10.1126/science.1175404