Science

Stone tools in Filipino cave were used to make ropes 40,000 years ago

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Inside the Tabon Caves on Palawan island in the Philippines

Hemis/Alamy Stock Photo

The prehistoric inhabitants of the Philippines were able to make ropes and baskets from plant fibres almost 40,000 years ago, according to an analysis of stone tools. The find suggests the people living then may have been able to produce more sophisticated constructions, such as boats and buildings, than previously thought.

“Mastering fibre technology was a very important step in human development. It allows to assemble different objects together and to build houses, make composite objects, hunt with bows,” says Hermine Xhauflair at the University of the Philippines Diliman. “Eventually, the existence of ropes allows people to attach a sail to canoes and create boats that can be used to go very far away.”

Because of this, archaeologists are keen to study ancient fibres, but their organic nature means few have been preserved – the oldest ever found is a 50,000-year-old piece of string thought to have been made by Neanderthals.

This lack of specimens means archaeologists often have to rely on indirect evidence for textile production, such as depiction in art, the seeds of fibre plants, or signs of fibre processing on stone tools.

Xhauflair and her colleagues have done just that, in their case analysing 43 stone tools dating from 33,000 to 39,000 years ago that had been excavated from the Tabon Caves on Palawan island in the Philippines.

To see if these tools had been used to make textiles, Xhauflair learned fibre-processing techniques from modern-day Indigenous inhabitants of the island, the Pala’wan people, then used replicas of the tools, which are made from a stone known as red jasper, to thin the fibres from bamboo, palm and other plants. The researchers examined these replica tools with a microscope to look for patterns of wear created by plant processing, then compared these marks with the ancient tools.

Three stone tools from the cave showed similar marks, suggesting they were once used for transforming rigid plants into supple strips. These signs included a brush stroke-type pattern of striations, micro-polish and micro-scars on the surface of the tools. The team also found residues on one of the cave tools that came from a plant in the Poaceae family, of which bamboo is a member.

Xhauflair isn’t so sure what the prehistoric Filipinos did with these supple strips. Today, the Pala’wan people use them to make baskets and traps or to tie objects together, so they may have had the same use in the past. “What we can conclude is that prehistoric people had the capacity to do all these things as soon as they knew how to process fibres,” she says.

“The study is intriguing as it opens the door to investigating aspects of past human behaviour that is typically not preserved in archaeological sites,” says Ben Shaw at the Australian National University. “Even though the plant remains are long gone, [the team’s] detailed approach has made them visible by looking at the tools used to process them.”

With this evidence of early fibre technology, Shaw says it would be worth re-examining previously excavated sites in the region, as activities such as boat making or building construction may have been overlooked if rope making wasn’t considered part of the ancient inhabitants’ toolkit.

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