Tuesday, October 19, 2021

Study Suggests Earliest Use of Bone Tools to Produce Clothing in Morocco 120,000 Years Ago

A new study led by Arizona State University paleoanthropologist Curtis Marean and ASU doctoral graduate Emily Hallett details more than 60 bone tools and one tool made from the tooth of a cetacean, which includes whales, dolphins, and porpoises. These finds, first unearthed from Contrebandiers Cave, Morocco, in 2011, are highly suggestive proxy evidence for the earliest clothing in the archaeological record and attest to the pan-African emergence of complex culture and specialized tool manufacture.

Carnivores were skinned for fur and bone tools were then used to prepare the furs into pelts.
Carnivores were skinned for fur and bone tools were then used to prepare the furs into pelts. (Image: via Jacopo Niccolò Cerasoni, 2021)

The invention of clothing, and the development of the tools needed to create it, are milestones in the story of humanity. Not only are they indicative of strides in cultural and cognitive evolution, archaeologists also believe they were essential in enabling early humans to expand their niche from Pleistocene Africa into new environments with new ecological challenges. However, as furs and other organic materials used to make clothing are unlikely to be preserved in the archaeological record, the origin of clothing is still poorly understood.

A bone tool from Contrebandiers Cave, Morocco that was used for leatherworking 120,000 to 90,000 years ago. (Image: via Jacopo Niccolò Cerasoni)

The current study published in iScience, which reports on a worked bone assemblage found near the Atlantic Coast of Morocco, provides strong evidence for the manufacture of clothing as far back as 120,000 years ago. 

As part of her research with the Institute of Human Origins and the Lise Meitner Pan-African Evolution Research Group at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History (MPI-SHH), Hallett was studying the vertebrate remains from Contrebandiers Cave deposits dating from 120,000 to 90,000 years ago. Marean, who is an associate director with the ASU Institute of Human Origins and Foundation Professor in the School of Human Evolution and Social Change, said:

“The Contrebandiers assemblage now replaces Blombos as the oldest bone tool assemblage and industry.”

Hallett added:

“This was a critical time period and location for the early members of our species, and I was primarily interested in reconstructing the diet and habitat niche of the people who used this cave.”

More than 60 bone tools found

Among the roughly 12,000 bone fragments, Hallett found more than 60 animal bones that had been shaped by humans for use as tools. At the same time, Hallett identified a pattern of cut marks on the carnivore bones suggesting that, rather than processing them for meat, the occupants of Contrebandiers Cave were skinning them for fur. Hallett compared the tools she identified with others in the archaeological record and found that they had the same shapes and use marks as leatherworking tools described by other researchers, she said:

“The combination of carnivore bones with skinning marks and bone tools likely used for fur processing provide highly suggestive proxy evidence for the earliest clothing in the archaeological record. But given the level of specialization in this assemblage, these tools are likely part of a larger tradition with earlier examples that haven’t yet been found.”

Also hidden amongst the bone fragments was the tip of a tooth from a whale or dolphin bearing marks consistent with use as a pressure flacker — a tool used for shaping stone tools.

Entrance to Contrebandiers Cave, Morocco. (Image: via Contrebandiers Project, 2009)

Given the age of the find, this represents the earliest documented use of a marine mammal tooth by humans and the only verified marine mammal remain from the Pleistocene of North Africa, Marean said:

“Once again, we see that complex technologies such as bone tools are only associated with aquatic adaptations at the origin point of modern humans. The coast was crucial.”

Hallett added:

“The Contrebandiers Cave bone tools demonstrate that by roughly 120,000 years ago, Homo sapiens began to intensify the use of bone to make formal tools and use them for specific tasks, including leather and fur working. This versatility appears to be at the root of our species and not a characteristic that emerged after expansions into Eurasia.”

In the future, Hallett hopes to collaborate with other researchers to identify comparable skinning patterns in the assemblages they study and gain a better understanding of the origins and diffusion of this behavior.

Provided by: Arizona State University [Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.]

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Troy Oakes
Troy was born and raised in Australia and has always wanted to know why and how things work, which led him to his love for science. He is a professional photographer and enjoys taking pictures of Australia's beautiful landscapes. He is also a professional storm chaser where he currently lives in Hervey Bay, Australia.
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