How a tiny object revolutionized “fashion” among prehistoric humans

How a tiny object revolutionized “fashion” among prehistoric humans
How a tiny object revolutionized “fashion” among prehistoric humans

Eyed needles, described by the National Museum of Natural History as “one of the finest elements of Paleolithic craftsmanship”are essential to understanding this distant period of prehistory. Indeed, a study published in Science Advances on June 28, 2024, shows that they helped in a fascinating transition that occurred thousands of years ago: the shift of clothing from a utilitarian function to a means of expressing identity.

Evolution of clothing in early humans

“Why did we start dressing to express ourselves and impress others?” It has long been assumed that wearing cloth is part of the human condition. Yet many cultures around the world have done very well without it. “What intrigues me is the transition of clothing from a physical necessity in some environments to a social necessity in all environments.”specifies in a press release Dr Ian Gilligan, honorary associate in archaeology at the University of Sydney (Australia) and director of research.

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Siberia, with its harsh conditions, is a perfect field for study. The discovery of 50,000-year-old tools in the territory has already revealed that, despite its perilous climate, humans were still living there during the Stone Age. Stone scrapers were used to prepare animal skins for use as thermal insulation. “We know that until the last glacial cycle [ il y a 11 700 ans]clothes were only used ad hoc [destiné expressément à un usage, ndlr]the expert explains. These classic tools […] we see them appearing and disappearing during the different phases of the last ice ages.”

Around 40,000 years ago, however, a new artifact arrived in the “tool kit” of the region’s hunter-gatherers: the famous eyed needles. Despite their antiquity, they were very sophisticated – and yet, much more difficult to make than simple awls, made by sharpening animal bones (the bone awls). If they were sharp enough to pierce thick skins, they also had a hole (an “eye”) at one end, allowing the first “tailors” to thread, create more fitted clothing… and sew their first ornaments.

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Eyed needles: technological and social revolution

But by reinterpreting all this evidence about the development of clothing—in particular, the distribution and timing of the appearance of eyed needles in the mid-latitudes at the end of the Pleistocene—the research team theorized that by enabling the production of more complex clothing, incorporating beads and other decorative objects, the technological innovation of the eyed needle allowed fabric scraps to take on functions other than just protective ones; social and cultural ones.

Dr Gilligan and his co-authors also point out in their study that traditional methods of distinctive body marking, made with ochre or by deliberate scarification in other parts of the world, were not feasible in these parts of Eurasia. During the latter part of the last ice age, the cold required constant wearing of animal skins in order to survive. Clothing could therefore have naturally taken on this “decorative” function.. “This is why the appearance of needles with an eye is particularly important.souligne le Dr Ian Gilligan. [Elles] would have been particularly useful for the very fine sewing needed to decorate clothes.”

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The practice of clothing eventually persisted across the millennia, helping to form larger, more complex societies. “People could move to colder climates while cooperating with their tribe or community through common clothing styles and symbols.”note the scientists. These results on the “aesthetic revolution” brought about by needles with eyes in the field of clothing, are also in line with others, published in the Journal of Human Evolution in 2018.

Based on evidence from tools found in the Northern Hemisphere, including 20,000-year-old sewing needles found above the middle reaches of the Inya River (Siberia), the anthropologists went even further. They suggested that these tools may have been crucial to two other important developments: the ability to travel long distances and complex thought. “The ability to sew warm clothes may have opened the door to the New World”they assumed.

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