Rope making more than 40,000 years old

It seems humans had twine and ropes some 40,000 years ago in the depths of the ice age. They used tools to twist plant material and vines to make rope. And while these would have been indispensable for hunter-gatherers, it also indicates that they must have had bases or “settlements” which they maintained for sufficiently long to bring their “technologies” into play. My image of hunter-gatherers is one where clans and tribes were mobile but spent weeks together at beneficial “bases”. Possibly the beginnings of summer and winter camps.

If they had rope and twine, they had thread. If they had thread, they probably had some form of garments. If they had twine, they had the “technology” for bows and arrows. If they had rope they would also have had the capability to drag heavy weights across primitive rollers.

Speech and counting were also coming into play around 50,000 years ago. Wolves – or some of their less aggressive members – were probably “cooperating” with humans at around this time.

In relative terms, the developments taking place some 50,000 years ago were probably as epoch-making as the changes in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Rope making tool from mammoth ivory from Hohle Fels Cave in southwestern Germany, ca. 40,000 years old. Photo: Copyright University of Tübingen

Rope making tool from mammoth ivory from Hohle Fels Cave in southwestern Germany, ca. 40,000 years old. Photo: Copyright University of Tübingen

Press Release: 

Prof. Nicholas Conard and members of his team, present the discovery of a tool used to make rope in today‘s edition of the journal: Archäologische Ausgrabungen Baden-Württemberg.
Rope and twine are critical components in the technology of mobile hunters and gatherers. In exceptional cases impressions of string have been found in fired clay and on rare occasions string was depicted in the contexts of Ice Age art, but on the whole almost nothing is known about string, rope and textiles form the Paleolithic.
A key discovery by Conard’s team in Hohle Fels Cave in southwestern Germany and experimental research and testing by Dr. Veerle Rots and her team form the University of Liège is rewriting the history of rope.
The find is a carefully carved and beautifully preserved piece of mammoth ivory 20.4 cm in length with four holes between 7 and 9 mm in diameter. Each of the holes is lined with deep, and precisely cut spiral incisions. The new find demonstrates that these elaborate carvings are technological features of rope-making equipment rather than just decoration.
Similar finds in the past have usually been interpreted as shaft-straighteners, decorated artworks or even musical instruments. Thanks to the exceptional preservation of the find and rigorous testing by the team in Liège, the researchers have demonstrated that the tool was used for making rope out of plant fibers available near Hohle Fels. “This tool answers the question of how rope was made in the Paleolithic”, says Veerle Rots, “a question that has puzzled scientists for decades.”
Excavators found the rope-making tool in archaeological horizon Va near the base of the Aurignacian deposits of the site. Like the famous female figurines and the flutes recovered from the Hohle Fels, the rope-making tool dates to about 40,000 years ago, the time when modern humans arrived in Europe. The discovery underlines the importance of fiber technology and the importance of rope and string for mobile hunters and gatherers trying to cope with challenges of life in the Ice Age.

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Harappan civilisation started earlier, lasted longer

It has been generally thought that the Harappan Civilisation (the Indus Valley Civilisation or, more correctly, the Indus-Saraswati Valley Civilisation) lasted about 2,000 years from about 3,300 BCE to about 1,300 BCE with a peak period from about 2,600 BCE to about 1,600 BCE. It was known that settlements in region date back almost 9,000 years ago (7,000 BCE) but it was thought that these were small, isolated settlements and not part of a cohesive society.

But a new paper reports on studies based on “a high resolution oxygen isotope (δ18O) record of animal teeth-bone phosphates from an archaeological trench itself at Bhirrana, NW India, preserving all cultural levels of this civilization. Bhirrana was part of a high concentration of settlements along the dried up mythical Vedic river valley ‘Saraswati’, an extension of Ghaggar river in the Thar desert. Isotope and archaeological data suggest that the pre-Harappans started inhabiting this area along the mighty Ghaggar-Hakra rivers fed by intensified monsoon from 9 to 7 ka BP. The monsoon monotonically declined after 7 ka yet the settlements continued to survive from early to mature Harappan time. Our study suggests that other cause like change in subsistence strategy by shifting crop patterns rather than climate change was responsible for Harappan collapse”. 

Oxygen isotope in archaeological bioapatites from India: Implications to climate change and decline of Bronze Age Harappan civilization

The “Harappan civilisation”  lasted, it seems for 4 to 5 millenia, and climate was probably just one of many factors causing its decline. But the decline was nothing very sudden. It may well have been a gradual depopulation of the region as inhabitants moved east and south. Some may have moved back to the north-west as the Thar Desert established itself.

What is striking is how the two great rivers, the Indus and the Saraswati (Ghaggar or Hakra), totally dominated the landscape. It is not surprising that an advanced water management “technology” developed. The growth of managed agriculture and trade followed. The period of intensified monsoon from 7,000 BCE to about 5,000 BCE could have been a time of plenty which promoted growth and settlement.

Saraswati paleochannel sarkar et al nature doi -10.1038 slash srep26555

Saraswati paleochannel sarkar et al nature doi -10.1038 slash srep26555

What is still remarkable is that there is no evidence of war-like events. The decline was not due to an invasion or a war. But the society was structured and had many building standards and techniques which were applied across many of the towns. Some form of central administration – if not rule – must have been in place.

It seems to be that the “settled”, peaceful society that seems to have existed may well have been due to the “invention” of professional guilds and the classification of people by function (and not primarily of hierarchy). Classification were perhaps established during the times of plenty. While it may have been a “horizontal” classification which was so successful, it was also the classification which lead eventually to the castes and the perversions of castes which are visible today. It is not impossible that it was societal pressures as a horizontal classification gave way to a vertical stratification which contributed to the decline. But that is all just my speculation.


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When humans were prey for hyenas

cackling hyena image youtube

cackling hyena image youtube

500,000 years ago human ancestors were well on their way to becoming the dominant species on the planet. Human ancestors had rudimentary control of fire some 1.5 – 2 million years ago, and that was the single event that led to the inevitable journey to becoming the dominant species. But though fire made dominance inevitable, it was a slow process. A new paper shows that tooth marks on the bones of a 500,000 year old hominin were caused by a large carnivore and indicating that the hominin had been consumed. The carnivore must have been a hyena-like creature.

Daujeard C, Geraads D, Gallotti R, Lefèvre D, Mohib A, Raynal J-P, et al. (2016), Pleistocene Hominins as a Resource for Carnivores: A c. 500,000-Year-Old Human Femur Bearing Tooth-Marks in North Africa (Thomas Quarry I, Morocco). PLoS ONE 11(4): e0152284. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0152284

Past Horizons reports:

During the Middle Pleistocene, early humans likely competed for space and resources with large carnivores, who occupied many of the same areas. However, to date, little evidence for direct interaction between them in this period has been found. The authors of the present study in PLOS ONE (open access) examined the shaft of a femur from the skeleton of a 500,000-year-old hominin, found in the Moroccan cave “Grotte à Hominidés” near Casablanca, Morocco, and found evidence of consumption by large carnivores. …….

……. While the appearance of the marks indicated that they were most likely made by hyenas shortly after death, it was not possible to conclude whether the bone had been eaten as a result of predation on the hominin or had been scavenged soon after death. Nonetheless, this is the first evidence that humans were a resource for carnivores during the Middle Pleistocene in this part of Morocco, and contrasts with evidence from nearby sites that humans themselves hunted and ate carnivores. The authors suggest that depending on circumstances, hominins at this time could have both acted as hunter or scavenger, and been targeted as carrion or prey.

I suspect that by 500,000 years ago human ancestors were not regular “prey” for carnivores but more of an opportunistic “find” for a cackle of hyenas.

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An Indus-Saraswati Valley map

A fine map from Frontier Times showing pre Harappan sites, the Indus.Saraswati Valley sites and modern cities. The presumed course of the Ghaggar-Hakra must be close to the course of what was the Saraswati River. There is little doubt that some important coastal sites must now be submerged since the se levels were at least 10m lower than today during the peak of the civilisation. When settlements in the region started – perhaps 7,000 BCE – sea levels would have been 20 – 30m lower.

indus map - frontier times

indus map – frontier times

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Dog domestication — the real story

From Clive Edwards Facebook page

dog domestication (clive edwards facebook)

dog domestication (clive edwards facebook)

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Finding Harappan ancestors

Everybody from the Indian sub-continent must have some Harappan ancestry; either those who actually lived in the heyday of the Indus-Saraswati Valley Civilisation (3300 – 1300 BC) or those who dispersed through India as that civilisation declined and intermingled with the existing populations. This intermingling over about 1000 years, of Harappans with those already settled from previously blended populations (pre and post-Toba) is probably one of the key gene dispersal mechanisms on the sub-continent.

Excavations are still adding new details but what is quite clear is that while some Harappans may have moved north-east during its decline, most of them were absorbed into India.

Deciphering Harappan scriptThe Indus-Saraswati Valley civilisation reached its peak around 1,900 BCE. It had been flourishing there for over a millennium from about 3300 BCE. But various proto-Harappan cultures had existed in those fertile plains for almost 4,000 years before that (from about 7,000BCE). At their peak they occupied the entire Indus -Saraswati Valley and stretched as far as the Indo-Gangetic plain. At its peak there were some 1,000 settlements and at least 5 “great” cities that we now know of; Mohenjo-Daro, Harappa, Ganweriwala, Rakhigarhi and Dholavira. None of these are truly coastal and it is not improbable that one or perhaps two “great” coastal cities are now submerged and waiting to be discovered. Only about 10% of the known sites have been investigated and the Indus Valley script – which I call Harappan for convenience – has yet to deciphered.

… In my narrative it is the Harappans and their language which provided the nucleus for, and eventually became, the family of Dravidian languages. In fact it is probable that some of the roots of what became Hinduism came also with them. I would even suggest that the specialisation of functions (administrators, priests, traders, craftsmen and labour) that must have existed in the meticulously planned, water-resourceful, trading cities of the Indus-Saraswati Valley led to the foundation of guilds and a stratified society. That probably laid the foundations of the caste system which, in its perverted form, currently disgraces the subcontinent.

Andrew Robinson looks at the state of the decipherment of the Harappan script in Nature.

Nature 526, 499–501 (22 October 2015) doi:10.1038/526499a.

Where the Harappans probably went

Where the Harappans probably went

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80,000-120,000 year old modern humans in S China confirm many and older Out of Africa events

The single Out of Africa hypothesis was clearly grossly oversimplified as I have posted about before. The narrative I still find most likely is that there were multiple Out of Africa events for AMH by two main routes starting from about 130,000 years ago. One to the Northern end of the Arabian peninsula from what is now Egypt and one from the Horn of Africa to the Southern part of the Arabian peninsula. Settlements did establish themselves around the now submerged portion of Arabia and the Persian Gulf.  There was at least one wave, and probably many waves, of modern humans which, prior to the Toba explosion 74,000 years ago, found its way to the western parts of SE Asia (now Burma, Malaysia and perhaps as far as Laos) but id not reach Australia. Much of that wave perished with Toba, but some few survived and mixed with those who came later. Now a new paper shows that there must also have been an early  (c. 80,000+ years ago), expansion along a route from the fertile crescent into Southern China, probably displacing the homo erectus cousins of the Neanderthals who were extant there. (This could even be the “unknown” hominids concurrent with Neanderthals and Denisovans). Possibly they were constrained to move East by the Neanderthals who then occupied central Asia and Europe.

The Great Expansion which started some 60,000 -70,000 years ago eastwards from Africarabia, after the Toba explosion, was then the one which reached Australia about 60,000 years ago. It was this population which also expanded into central Asia in two or more great streams; one Westwards into Europe and one Northwards and Eastwards across the steppes of Russia and across Northern China. The mixed with the pre-modern hominids they came across. I speculate that it was in fact their superior social skills (group size, specialisation of skills, trade behaviour and language) which led to their eventual dominance and the gradual decline and absorption of all the homo species they came across.

Wu Liu et al, The earliest unequivocally modern humans in southern ChinaNature (2015)Published online14 October 2015, doi:10.1038/nature15696

AbstractThe hominin record from southern Asia for the early Late Pleistocene epoch is scarce. Well-dated and well-preserved fossils older than ~45,000 years that can be unequivocally attributed to Homo sapiens are lacking1, 2, 3, 4. Here we present evidence from the newly excavated Fuyan Cave in Daoxian (southern China). This site has provided 47 human teeth dated to more than 80,000 years old, and with an inferred maximum age of 120,000 years. The morphological and metric assessment of this sample supports its unequivocal assignment to H. sapiens. The Daoxian sample is more derived than any other anatomically modern humans, resembling middle-to-late Late Pleistocene specimens and even contemporary humans. Our study shows that fully modern morphologies were present in southern China 30,000–70,000 years earlier than in the Levant and Europe5, 6, 7. Our data fill a chronological and geographical gap that is relevant for understanding when H. sapiens first appeared in southern Asia. The Daoxian teeth also support the hypothesis that during the same period, southern China was inhabited by more derived populations than central and northern China. This evidence is important for the study of dispersal routes of modern humans. Finally, our results are relevant to exploring the reasons for the relatively late entry of H. sapiens into Europe. Some studies have investigated how the competition with H. sapiens may have caused Neanderthals’ extinction (see ref. 8 and references therein). Notably, although fully modern humans were already present in southern China at least as early as ~80,000 years ago, there is no evidence that they entered Europe before ~45,000 years ago. This could indicate that H. neanderthalensis was indeed an additional ecological barrier for modern humans, who could only enter Europe when the demise of Neanderthals had already started.

The 47 human teeth found in Fuyan Cave, Daoxian, China. photo S. XING AND X-J. WU


The teeth, excavated from Fuyan Cave in Daoxian, southern China, represent the earliest unambiguous evidence for Homo sapiensoutside of Africa.

“They are indeed the earliest Homo sapiens with fully modern morphologies outside of Africa,” lead author Wu Liu of the Chinese Academy of Sciences told Discovery News. “At the Levant (much of the eastern Mediterranean), we also have human remains from the sites of Qafzeh and Skhul (in Israel) with similar ages, but these fossils have been described as retaining some primitive features and, thus, are not fully modern.” …….

…….. Some researchers have even proposed an “Out of Asia” instead of “Out of Africa” migration path for the first Homo sapiens.

While the new findings do not resolve that question, they do reveal that our species was in southern China up to 70,000 years before it was in the eastern Mediterranean and Europe. The newly unearthed remains also offer evidence that China during the Pleistocene Era was likely inhabited by multiple groups of humans: our species and another more primitive lineage(s). Prior fossil discoveries show that the primitive Denisovans, for example, were in northern Asia.

Further complicating the mix is that Neanderthals were also living outside of Africa at the same time. The researchers suspect that the Neanderthals’ presence might have even deterred our species’ migration into Europe, since it took Homo sapiens so long to get there. Intriguingly, Neanderthals went extinct, or perhaps were absorbed into the Homo sapiens population, shortly after our species landed on what was Neanderthal turf. …….

The southern China cave where the teeth were found unfortunately provides no clues on what the culture of Homo sapiens was like there 80,000–120,000 years ago. No prehistoric tools or other telltale artifacts have been found so far at the site……..

The single Out of Africa event for modern humans is clearly far too simplistic. It is also clear that there were many back to Africa movements as well. Humans expanded sometimes because their old habitats were no longer viable. But, it seems, humans also explored and expanded into new territories from regions of plenty and where they maintained some contact with where they had come from. Probably, just because they could.

See also

Chinese teeth support pre- and post-Toba dispersals of modern humans

Multiple Out of Africa events

Related: Out of Africarabia posts

Posted in AMH, Denisovans, Neanderthals, Peopling the world | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment