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History of Textiles

When did People Learn to Make Cloth?

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Wild flax fibers from Unit C, Dzudzuana Cave, Georgia

Wild flax fibers from Unit C, Dzudzuana Cave, Georgia

[Image courtesy of Science/AAAS
12,000 Year Old Textiles from Guitarrero Cave in Peru

Both sides of a fragment of a woven mat or basket container from Guitarrero Cave. Black grimy residue and wear from use is visible.

© Edward A. Jolie and Phil R. Geib
Inca Khipu, from the Collections of the LACMA Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

Inca Khipu, from the Collections of the LACMA Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

Lynn Dombrowski

Textiles, to archaeologists anyway, can mean woven cloth, bags, nets, basketry, string-making, cord impressions in pots, sandals or other objects created out of organic fibers. This technology is at least 30,000 years old, although preservation of the textiles themselves is rare in prehistory, so it may be quite a bit older still.

Because textiles are perishable, often the oldest evidence of the use of textiles is implied from impressions left in burned clay or the presence of weaving-related tools such as awls, loom weights or spindle whorls. Preservation of intact fragments of cloth or other textiles has known to occur when archaeological sites are in extreme conditions of cold, wet or dry; when fibers come into contact with metals such as copper; or when textiles are preserved by accidental charring.

The History of Textiles

The oldest example of textiles yet identified by archaeologists is at the Dzudzuana Cave in the former Soviet state of Georgia. There, a handful of flax fibers was discovered that had been twisted, cut and even dyed a range of colors. The fibers were radiocarbon-dated to between 30,000-36,000 years ago.

Much of the early use of cloth began with making string. The earliest string-making to date was identified at the Ohalo II site in modern Israel, where three fragments of twisted and plied plant fibers were discovered and dated to 19,000 years ago.

The Jomon culture in Japan--believed to be among the earliest pottery makers in the world--have evidence of cord-making, in the form of impressions in ceramic vessels from Fukui Cave, and dated ~13,000 years ago. Archaeologists chose the word Jomon to refer to this ancient hunter-gather culture because it means "cord-impressed".

  • Read more about the Jomon

The occupation layers discovered at Guitarrero Cave in the Andes mountains of Peru contained agave fibers and textile fragments that were dated to ~12,000 years ago. That's the oldest evidence of textile use in the Americas to date.

The earliest example of cordage in North America is at Windover Bog in Florida, where the special circumstances of the bog chemistry preserved textiles (among other things) dated to 8,000 years ago.

Silk making, which is made from thread derived from insect cases rather than plant material, was invented during the Longshan period in China, ca 3500-2000 BC.

Finally, one extremely important (and unique in the world) use of string in South America was as quipu, a system of communication composed of knotted and dyed cotton and llama wool string used by many South American civilizations at least 5,000 years ago.

Further Information

See the links above for references on the specific sites. A textile bibliography has been collected for this article.

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