November 2, 2009
An international team of researchers hasfound evidence that humans in what is now Georgia were using flax some 30,000years ago.
Flax is one of the oldest domesticatedcrops, and has been used to make linen for thousands of years. Flax fibers arealso used in rope, twine, and paper.
Harvard Universityarchaeologist Ofer Bar-Yosef says he and his colleagues stumbled across theflax while looking through soil samples for grains of pollen, which prehistoricarchaeologists use to infer climate conditions.
"So this was absolutely an accidentaldiscovery, and of course a fascinating one," he said.
The bits of flax they found weremicroscopic, but some of the fibers showed signs of having been cut, knotted,and even colored using some of the 100 Caucasusplants suitable for dying fiber.
"And therefore, it's not surprisingthat they even dyed their own - whatever they [made] from it. Let's say theymade ropes or strings, that they dyed some of them," Bar-Yosef said
The discovery dates from a time when modernhumans were fanning out through the Middle East into Europe and Central Asia, displacing the Neanderthals. By 30,000years ago, they'd already reached Dzudzuana Cave, where the flax wasdiscovered, though Bar-Yosef says it's unclear whether flax might have beenused even earlier.
"Whether it started with modernhumans, I'm not sure. Maybe Neanderthals had it before. But we don'tknow," he said.
There's no way to know for sure how theseearly humans discovered that a plant could be turned into fibers that could bewoven in useful ways, but Bar-Yosef says it probably was a woman who figured itout.
"Men, males, used to be the hunters,go after the animals, and so on. Females were always around the camp, but theywere the ones who paid attention to the botany, to the plants all around[them]," he said.
Harvard archaeologist Ofer Bar-Yosef saysthe chance discovery of flax fibers at a site inhabited thousands of yearsbefore the plant was known to be used illustrates the key role that science hascome to play in uncovering the past.
"When you start digging a site, youcan expect anything, because there are a lot of things which were notpreserved, and other that [were] preserved in such a way that you don't seethem," he said. "And therefore, a chance discovery through the microscopeshows you that the involvement of science in archaeology is critical."
The researchers identified more than 1300fragments of flax fiber from various locations in the cave, sometimes incombination with bits of dyed and twisted fur from the Caucasusantelope called the tur. In a report published in the journal Science,Bar-Yosef writes that this might - might - suggest that the early humans in theDzudzuana Cavein Georgiawere processing fur and cloth.