Paleolithic people used eye needles for more than tailoring, scientists say. He could pay attention to the birth of fashion

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A new study has found that the eye needle — a sewing tool made of bone, antler or ivory that first appeared around 40,000 years ago in southern Siberia — hides important clues about the beginnings of fashion.

Researchers looked at existing archaeological evidence from dozens of sites across Europe, the Middle East, Southeast Asia, southern Africa and Australia, where ancient tools used to make clothing were found, of according to research published June 28 in the journal Science Advances. The circumstances surrounding eye needles have raised a number of questions.

“Eye needles made sewing more efficient and marked the advent of fitted or tailored clothing,” said lead study author Ian Gilligan, an honorary associate in the discipline of archeology at the University of Sydney in Australia.

However, there is historical evidence of earlier tools used to make clothing, albeit with less precision. “So why did eye needles start to appear in the colder parts of Eurasia as the climate got colder, about 40,000 years ago and entering the peak of the last ice age, about 22,000 a year ago?”

According to Gilligan, this enhanced precision may have served a purpose other than adaptation to prehistoric humans: self-expression.

“During the colder parts of the last ice age, people had to cover their bodies more or less continuously,” he said, adding that clothing would cancel out some traditional ways of decorating the body for social purposes seen in many hunter-gatherer societies, such as body painting, tattooing and skinning.

“When people have to wear clothes all the time because of the cold, then how do you dress yourself up? How do you change your appearance for social purposes? And the answer is that you transfer the decoration from the surface of the skin to the surface of the clothes,” said Gilligan.

According to this interpretation, the eye needles, one of the symbols of the Paleolithic age, were not simple tools of adaptation but also instruments of social and cultural development of prehistoric people.

A sign of change

Eye needles were not used exclusively for decorative purposes, the new study noted. They could also be used to create tighter clothing or custom layers such as underwear.

Archaeological finds have uncovered older tools for tailoring, such as bone joints – which are simply sharpened animal bones found that were used to cut animal hides.

“We don’t need eye needles to manufacture clothes,” he said. “We now know that other technologies already existed, which raises the question of why eye needles were invented.”

An artist's illustration shows how prehistoric people might have used adapted clothing for decorative purposes.  - Mariana Ariza

An artist’s illustration shows how prehistoric people might have used adapted clothing for decorative purposes. – Mariana Ariza

There is evidence that clothing was decorated during the last glacial cycle, Gilligan said, citing the discovery of a burial site near Moscow where skeletons believed to be 30,000 years old were decorated with thousands of beads and pierced ivory shells. “They appear to have been sewn onto the outer surface of clothing for decoration,” he said.

This evidence would support the theory that eye needles played a role in decoration, not restricting their use for tailoring. “Those two objectives are by no means mutually exclusive. And indeed, they go together,” said Gilligan. “When you’re going to cover the body more fully, you need to transfer decoration to the garment, and eye pins would be useful for both.”

The hypothesis will probably never receive material confirmation, because the oldest clothes ever found are about 5,000 years old – textile and leather materials cannot be preserved for much longer. However, the practice would suggest a much earlier cultural and social use of garments than previously believed.

“Clothing didn’t achieve its social purpose until the end of the last ice age — that’s why we think that clothing, for the first time, was constantly being used by humans when it wasn’t needed for thermal insulation, around 12,000 years. ago,” Gilligan said.

“Our study shows that eye needles are a marker for this change in clothing function, from a thermal need to a social need,” he said.

Connecting with the past

This study is important not only because it reinforces the importance of clothing and clothing in understanding the development of human culture, but also because it brings different perspectives in art and science closer together, said Liza Foley, assistant professor at Ghent University and curator. fashion and textiles at the Royal Museums of Art and History in Brussels, Belgium. Foley was not involved in the research.

April Nowell, professor and Lansdowne Distinguished Fellow at the anthropology department of the University of Victoria in Canada, said that it is sometimes difficult for scientists to help people connect with a history as remote as the Paleolithic, and that archaeologists have an additional challenge. they must make the most of every artifact they find.

“Things like clothing don’t preserve over thousands of years, but bone and mammal ivory needles do, and they can tell us about the technological knowledge of our ancestors and the ways they adapted to both their physical and cultural environments,” said Nowell, who was aware. also not related to the study.

It’s these kinds of things that we can all relate to that help humanize the past, she said.

“Other than material, the eye needle hasn’t changed in any practical sense for thousands of years,” she said via email.

There is evidence of woven and even dyed textiles starting around 30,000 years ago, she said. As a result, scientists can infer the types of decisions people have to make in order to make spun, dyed clothing – what plants to use, the spinning method, how to decorate the clothing and ultimately how to protect. from the elements while living outside most of the time.

“And all this knowledge would be passed down from generation to generation,” Nowell said, “so something as simple and insignificant as a needle opens a window into the unexpected richness of Ice Age people’s lives.”

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