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Humans Made Clothes as Early as 120,000 Years Ago Using Bone Tools: Research

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Sep 17, 2021

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Image credit: Jacopo Niccolò Cerasoni, 2021

Pleistocene humans were as fastidious as anyone when it came to fashion. A cave in Morocco revealed evidence of advanced bone tools used to manufacture leather and fur 120,000 years ago. “They look like the tools that people still use today to process hides for leather and fur,” said Emily Hallett from the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Germany. 

The discovery helps us understand the purpose of clothing and why it became such an integral part of human life and evolution. 

“The emergence of Homo sapiens in Pleistocene Africa is associated with a profound reconfiguration of technology. Symbolic expression and personal ornamentation, new tool forms, and regional technological traditions are widely recognized as the earliest indicators of complex culture and cognition in humans,” the study, published on Thursday in iScience, notes. 

The instruments from the cave were relatively specialized, suggesting that early humans began using cruder forms of the tools to manufacture fur and leather much earlier than even 120,000 years ago. 

The 12,000 bones that the researchers discovered in the cave were of two types: one set bore marks that indicated they were used as tools for skinning, and another set displayed evidence of belonging to the skinned animals — all carnivores — themselves. Taken together, the bones are arguably the oldest and most concrete archeological evidence of clothes manufacturing in early humans, according to researchers. 


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“This new study really pushes back the first good archaeological evidence for the manufacture of clothing, and it’s coinciding nicely with the beginning of the last Ice Age about 120,000 years ago, so I think that’s really significant,” Ian Gilligan, from the University of Sydney and who was not part of the study, told Smithsonian Magazine.

Before the present discovery, the earliest evidence of clothes went back to 75,000 years ago. The clothes themselves are difficult to find in a preserved or intact form, and archeologists rely on more indirect forms of evidence. “Organic materials such as leather and fur are improbable to preserve in deposits that are this old, so as archaeologists, we are left with pieces of evidence that include tools and the bones from animals that preserve skinning marks,” Hallett told ScienceAlert.

Evidence also suggests that early humans wore clothes not only to protect themselves but also, theories suggest, for comfort and even fashion. North African climate, for one, is not particularly cold and wasn’t 120,000 years ago either.

“There’s really no extreme temperatures or extreme climate conditions there in the past or today. So that makes me wonder was clothing strictly utilitarian or was it symbolic or was it a little bit of both?” Hallett suggested. The discovery of pierced shells and beads lend weight to the idea that humans wore clothes for purposes other than survival, far before they began their great migration from North Africa to populate the rest of the world. 

Another study from a decade ago validates the idea that clothes were prevalent far earlier than imagined. 170,000-year-old remains of clothes lice, with DNA distinct from head lice, is behind the hypothesis. Now, 10 years later, the new study confirms the approximate time period when humans were believed to have produced and worn clothes. 

“Clothing and the expanded toolkits of early humans are likely parts of the package that led to the adaptive success of humans… and helped our ability to succeed globally and in climatically extreme regions,” Hallett added.

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Written By Rohitha Naraharisetty

Rohitha Naraharisetty is an Associate Editor at The Swaddle. Previously, she was a freelance writer and independent researcher working in the intersection of gender, social movements, and international relations. She can be found on Instagram at @rohitha_97 or on Twitter at @romimacaronii.

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