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Popular Science: Sewing – when and where was it invented?

Clothing plays a very important role in human lives. It is a way of communicating social and individual identity. Moreover, sewing and clothing was of great significance for the history of humans because it enabled man to colonize the cold regions of our planet and to cope with climate change. It is, however, still unclear when, how and where this innovation first appeared. When studying the invention of clothing, needles (made of bone, ivory or antler) represent a proxy for this research. An international team of scientists, among them Martina Lázničková-Galetová from the Hrdlička Museum of Man (Charles University, Faculty of Science) and the Moravian Museum in Brno, aimed to answer questions about the invention of needles and clothing.

The authors of the study analysed a large dataset of needles from North American and Eurasian sites (dated between 45 and 10 ka BP). The studied specimens also included 73 needles found in Moravia (71 specimens from the Pekárna site and 2 from Býčí skála), which belong to the depository of the Moravian Museum in Brno and the Wankel Collection curated in Wien.

The aim of this study was to trace the origin of needles, their spread throughout Eurasia and their diversification. The results show that bone needles were invented in Asia around 45 ka BP. The oldest specimens were found in the Denisova cave in Siberia. There are, however, differences between needles from Siberia and China, indicating the independent invention of this tool in Central and East Asia. From Siberia and China, needles spread rapidly to the Caucasus and central Asia (respectively). Since the beginning of the Upper Paleolithic, needles were common in central Asia, since the Late Paleolithic they also became common in East Asia. Later on, needles spread to Eastern Europe and subsequently to Western and Southern Europe. In the Magdalenian epoch (the era of the last great civilisations of the Paleolithic, 23.5 – 20.5 ka BP), needles were omnipresent throughout Europe. For example, specimens found in France and Moravia are of 2 types – small thin needles and a heterogenous group of robust needles which vary in size.

Needles found in (a) France and (b) the Pekárna cave in Moravia. Source: authors of the article.

In general, we can distinguish between two main types of needles. Flat needles which were made from ribs. These are subrectangular in cross-section, have rounded symmetrical outlines, clean edges and are highly polished. The other type, sub-circular needles, were made from long bones.

d’Errico, Francesco, et al. "The origin and evolution of sewing technologies in Eurasia and North America." Journal of human evolution 125 (2018): 71-86.

Veronika Rudolfová

Published: Jul 08, 2019 11:25 AM

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