Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Where Does The Needle Point?

World's Oldest Needle.  (Pictures:  Russia 24, Vesti)
From The Siberian Times today comes a dramatic discovery:  a 50,000-year-old bone needle that is 7 cm (about 2 3/4 inches) long, that was recently found in a cave in the Altai Mountains in Siberia.

In one way, that fact is not so surprising. Because it has been established that human body lice were already common about 170,000 years ago, and that body lice cannot live on a person who is not wearing clothing, it follows that clothing, and the tools necessary to make it, go at least that far back in time. (To get an idea of where we fit into the story, modern humans, which bear the scientific name Homo sapiens sapiens, go back approximately 200,000 years.)

Illustration showing bracelet find and reconstruction
of its original appearance.  Image credit:
Vera Salnitskaya, Anastasia Abdulmanova
What no one appears to have talked about, before now, is the impact of extinct members of genus Homo or even subspecies of Homo sapiens upon the history of clothing.

The needle was found in a place called the Denisova Cave, which is associated, not with modern man, but with an extinct subspecies called the Denisovans or homo sapiens altai.

In other words, it was not made by the species we think of as ourselves.

Archaeologists have been exploring the Denisova Cave for quite a while now and are far from finished.  The article includes pictures of other finds, made in 2008.  This find included a broken stone bracelet made from a polished, deep green piece of chlorite about 40,000 years ago.  This precisely-shaped band has a round hole neatly drilled in the middle--perhaps for a pendant of some kind on a leather strap.

Nor were the Denisovans necessarily the only Homo genuses in the clothing history picture.  The Siberian Times article calls attention to the fact that the existence of this bracelet demonstrates that the Denisovans were more technologically skilled than the Neanderthals, who were roughly contemporaneous with them.  More importantly, other discoveries from the Denisova Cave include DNA evidence that, at least in Siberia, homo sapiens sapiens interbred with both the Neanderthals and the Denisovans.

What is of interest to me are the implications of these needle and jewelry finds on costume history. One implication is that the fashioning of clothing and adornments may predate homo sapiens sapiens. Perhaps more importantly, the presence of these items confirmed that homo sapiens altai shared our need for clothing and our love of adornment--and makes it much harder not to consider these species to be as human as we are.   As the excavations at the Denisova Cave progress, the time is coming when we will need to reevaluate and expand the history of human clothing.

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