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Archaeologists digging in a cave in the former Soviet Republic of Georgia have come across the world's oldest textiles. They found flax fibers that date back 30,000 years or more. The find suggests that string isn't as humble as it seems. It could have helped our ancestors survive the last ice age, as NPR's Richard Harris reports.
RICHARD HARRIS: 30,000 years ago humans in Europe were trying to shrug off the cold of the last ice-age. Some people lived in caves in the present day Republic of Georgia. To get a picture of life back then, scientists look at pollen from those caves to figure out what plants were around when the people were. Ofer Bar-Yosef from Harvard explains that a colleague of his put some cave pollen into a chamber to look at it under the microscope.
Professor OFER BAR-YOSEF (Anthropology, Harvard University): Her major discovery was that many of these pollen chambers actually contain fibers of flax.
HARRIS: Flax was growing wild at the time. And it turns out not only to be a source of edible grain, but of fiber. These fibers were twisted — a sure sign that the flax had been spun. Now, flax fibers woven together make linen, but in this case, linen doesn't mean crisply pressed summer suits. Bar-Yosef says the fibers they found in the cave were probably braided together, macrame style.
Prof. BAR-YOSEF: You can make headgear, you can make baskets, you can make ropes and strings, and so on.
HARRIS: He didn't find any of those objects in the cave — that's too much to hope for 30,000 years later. But the researchers report in Science magazine that they did find evidence that the fibers were knotted and dyed — black, gray, turquoise and pink. That's consistent with other artifacts that show an artistic flair among these early people. The news of this ancient textile is exciting indeed to Elizabeth Barber, a retired professor from Occidental College, who literally wrote the book on prehistoric textiles.
Professor ELIZABETH BARBER (Retired Professor, Occidental College): I mean, talk about the proverbial needle in the haystack. Trying to find fibers that are 30,000 years old really is almost impossible.
HARRIS: Barber says evidence of textiles dates back 25,000 years already, there are impressions of woven material found in clay. It's clear now that the technology is even older. And that fits nicely with her hypothesis that plain old string was a powerful technology, which helped people weather the last ice age.
Prof. BARBER: It totally revolutionized what they could do. I mean, on a very simple basis, think about the fact you can tie things up into packages so you can carry more. You can put out nets and snares to catch more game so you can eat better and so on and so forth.
HARRIS: We of course think of clothing when we think of woven materials. But Barber says woven clothing was probably not around 30,000 years ago.
Prof. BARBER: There's no real evidence they wore clothing. I mean, if you were cold, you would pull, you know, the pelt that came off of last night's dinner around your shoulders.
HARRIS: Instead, she says, woven clothing developed not so much for comfort as for fashion, socially important fashion.
Prof. BARBER: It's not until you start to get haves and have-nots that people start differentiating themselves by, look what I'm wearing as opposed to what you're wearing or not wearing.
HARRIS: So how then does she explain the pink and turquoise dyes on those ancient fibers? Simple she says…
Prof. BARBER: We love color — our brains go zing when they see color.
HARRIS: So, colored string - why not?
Richard Harris NPR News.