How eyed sewing needles facilitated the expansion of early ‘Homo sapiens’

The invention of these tools allowed humans to make multilayered clothing and perhaps even underwear to protect them during in the ice age, argue the authors of a new study

Primeras agujas de coser paleolitico
Some of the first sewing needles, of various shapes and sizes, found at various sites in Eurasia.Gilligan et al., Science Advances
Miguel Ángel Criado

A hole in a bone awl must have been one of the great drivers of human expansion in its beginnings. For hundreds of thousands of years, early hominid species did not need much shelter; the climate in most of Africa made it unnecessary. However, as they expanded further north, the fossil record shows how they became sheltered. No clothing has been preserved, but an increasing number of tools to make it have been found. At first, they were simple flakes to tear off and cut the hides, but later awls and burins emerged to make holes in them and sew them. But the truly great innovation, led by Homo sapiens, was eyed needles. With them, the first humans not only dressed to protect themselves even better from the cold; needles also allowed them to use the garments as a form of expression, as a culture.

In a review of existing scientific literature published in Science Advances, five researchers led by Ian Gilligan, from the University of Sydney, show how clothing emerged. Not the clothes themselves, of which only a few shreds have been preserved, but the tools to make them. In their work, they conclude that at first humans felt the need to protect themselves from the cold, but very soon the social dimension of clothing was added.

“Archaeological evidence indicates that eyed needles first appeared in southern Siberia about 40,000 years ago, followed by northern China between 35,000 and 30,000 years ago,” says Gilligan, author of the book Climate, Clothing and Agriculture in Prehistory. At that time and in those latitudes, it was very cold. The Earth was going through the central portion of the last ice age. Three different species of humans lived at that time and were able to coexist: the Denisovans, the Neanderthals and the Sapiens. It is in the Denisova cave complex, located in the Altai massif in Siberia, that the first needles were found. As the authors say in their work, simply opening a hole in a bone tool was a radical innovation: “Eyed needles made sewing more efficient, by combining two separate processes into one: (i) the piercing of holes in hides and (ii) the threading of sinew or fiber through the holes.”

Until then, available tools allowed for cutting the hides and little else. Evidence such as paleoenvironmental reconstructions, fauna remains and comparisons with current traditional societies, suggest that Neanderthals used simpler garments, such as ponchos. However, the discovery of awls and burins in Neanderthal sites in southern Europe dating back more than 100,000 years suggests that they were also able to make garments by piercing and joining different hides, so that they fit the body better, thus achieving better thermal insulation. That is the key: adjusting clothing to the body as much as possible manages to better conserve human heat. And needles allowed humans to go further, with the construction of multiple garments: adding another layer almost doubles the insulation capacity.

The earliest eyed needles found in China are large and sturdy, suggesting that they were used for crafting thick, tailored clothing and robust leather objects. The size contrast between early needle specimens from Siberia and China suggests the possibility of independent invention in these regions
Ian Gilligan, Sydney University

Following the trail of the cold, we can follow the trail of eyed needles and that of humans in their expansion. There are no needles in previous human sites on the African continent and there are hardly any at the time they appeared in Eurasia. “The earliest eyed needles found in China are large and sturdy, suggesting that they were used for crafting thick, tailored clothing and robust leather objects. The size contrast between early needle specimens from Siberia and China suggests the possibility of independent invention in these regions,” says Gilligan. Eyed needles did not reach Europe until several millennia later, with the emergence of the Solutrean culture in the south of present-day France and the north of the Iberian Peninsula, about 26,000 years ago. Again, the key must have been the climate: “During the last ice age, the climate in Europe was not as cold as in Siberia. The difference in temperatures and the thermal sensation of the wind can explain why eyed needles appeared earlier in Siberia than in Europe,” adds the Australian researcher. That doesn’t mean that Sapiens didn’t already sew their clothes. The discovery last year of a bone object used to pierce and sew leather suggests that it was already being done 40,000 years ago on what is now the coast of Catalonia.

“The main function of the earliest garments was thermal insulation,” notes Francesco D’Errico, co-author of the work. “As early humans migrated from Africa and encountered colder climates, the need for protection from the elements became crucial for survival. Leather and animal hides provided warmth and essential protection against wind, rain and snow,” he adds. His colleague Gilligan highlights their role in prehistory: “Eyed needles were fundamental for the expansion of Homo sapiens to very cold environments during the last ice age,” and recalls that even Neanderthals, who “were physically better adapted to the cold than us, but lacked eyed needles, never reached northern Siberia, as far as we know.” In fact, there are needles in the first archaeological sites in northern Siberia and they were found in Alaska, coinciding with the passage of humans to America.

The authors also suggest that needles may have made it easier to make underwear. But neither D’Errico nor Gilligan can confirm it. “The production of underwear left very little or no trace in the archaeological records, so it is possible that it was already used a long time ago,” recalls the former. “What is important to note is that for a long time, about 26,000 years ago, hunter-gatherers in Eurasia began to produce needles of different sizes, many of which are compatible with sewing underwear.”

Before needles reached the western edge of Europe, there was already a relatively large textile activity. The most striking case, without a doubt, is Isturitz cave, near the town of Saint-Martin-d’Arberoue, in the French Basque Country. “It is an extraordinary site due to the richness of its fossil record,” says Aitor Calvo, an archaeologist from the University of the Basque Country. One of the layers of the stratum, from around 30,000 years ago, looks like a millefeuille in which “several thousand burins appeared,” he says. Regarding what might have been done with them, Calvo can only theorize: “Due to the few bone traces and the tests [they carried out a series of experiments using the objects with different materials], they must have been used with a soft material, which suggests animal hide, leather.”

This site belongs to the Gravettian culture, which flourished between present-day France and Spain until about 22,000 years ago. From this time, no fabrics have been found either, but “perforated beads were distributed around the body, in such a way that they could only be objects sewn to clothing,” says Calvo. The Gravettian culture was succeeded by the Solutrean culture, which also spread throughout southern Iberia and coincided with the height of the Ice Age. It was in this culture that the first needles appeared on the Iberian Peninsula. “It is when the burins disappear from the cave record, but associating that with the emergence of the needles is risky,” warns the archaeologist.

Although the protective function of clothing predates its decorative uses, everything indicates that its social role emerged shortly thereafter. “Very soon humans probably began using clothing as ornament and social signaling,” D’Errico says. “This transition can be observed in the adornment of garments with beads, but it is very likely that this dimension was integrated into clothing from a very early time,” he adds. For him, the social functions of clothing must have been quite similar to those seen in traditional societies; in addition to thermal insulation, it would cover aspects such as group identity, gender differentiation, social status and ceremonial use. However, there would be “a gradual change in the weight of each of these functions, whereby protection, group identity and gender would have more of a role at the beginning and social status would acquire increasingly greater relevance.”

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