The prehistory of textiles: Paleolithic

Textile production is one of the most ancient arts and is one of the most important factors in the survival of our species. Awls and eyed needles for sewing hides began to appear over 70,000 years ago. Amazing!


I have become seriously obsessed. I get these packages once a month or so. They're covered in cloth that has been stitched and sealed with wax, wild stamps, and lots of confusing lettering. I have to rip the cloth open to get inside, which always seems a shame to me. But I get over the guilt when the smell of the sari or ikat or suzani wafts out of the package. It smells like a mysterious far-away closet. When I pull the fabric out and it floats open in front of me in all its magnificence, sometimes I actually get tears in my eyes. The dogs think I'm crazy.

There's got to be some adaptive advantage to this compulsion. Hormonal reaction. Neurotransmitters. Textile production can be viewed from many perspectives: mythology, history, archaeology, linguistics, art, neurology, cognitive evolution, altered states of consciousness...What about the word, textile? Text. Symbolic language. And this could be the oldest language known today. There are symbols still in use by weavers that can be traced back to the earliest human expressions of art on stone during the Upper Paleolithic (from 50 to 10 thousand years ago). 

The Upper Paleolithic was a 40 thousand-year renaissance for Homo sapiens. Prior to that time, there is very little evidence for artistic or symbolic expression. That is not to say that Lower and middle Paleolithic homonids were not capable of symbolic thought. There is some evidence, and more is coming to light every year, of artistic expression. But nothing compares to the incredible flourishing of the Upper Paleolithic. Suddenly there are beads, rock art, clothing, portable art, new weaponry, weaving, and evidence of ritual and ceremonial treatment of the dead. They busted out!

The use of textiles during that time is hard to trace. Obviously, cloth disintegrates quickly, but there are other signs of textile use. Evidence may include tools like eyed needles, awls, spindle whorls, netting needles, battens, shuttles, combs, and looms. It's been suggested, based on the usewear on their edges, that the ivory batons found at many sites may have been tools to tamp down rows on a loom.

Venus of Hohle Fels (36 kya)

Antique kelim with Venus and radial motifs. Look like anyone we know?

Ancient kelim with nested diamonds and Venus motifs

Mammoth tusk bracelet with repeated and nested swastika/spiral motifs
Ancient kelim with Venus and nested diamond motifs

Symbols on mammoth tusk artifacts from Mezin.
Antique kelim with pinwheel/swastika motifs
Venus of Willendorf (22 kya)
Although humans were likely wearing skins for clothing from 500 thousand to 100 thousand years ago, the oldest evidence for actual textile production include a possible needle and footwear made of plant fibers dating to 40 thousand years ago. Dyed flaxfibers have been found in a cave in the Republic of Georgiadating to 36thousand years ago. Another is the impresssion of basketry or weaving in ceramic vessels, clay, and figurines. Dolni Vestonice and Pavlov, in the Czech Republic both contained impressions on clay of knotted nets. These date from 32 to 29 thousand years ago. Ohalo II in Israel contained unidentified plant fibers, likely used for textiles dating to 21 thousand years ago. But the best known, and the coolest, evidence is found on the many many Venus figurines such as the 24 thousand-year old Venus of Willendorf. Some of them are wearing woven textiles! Venus figurines from western Europe wore basketry hats, belts, and a strap of cloth above the breast. Eastern European figurines had low-slung belts and occasional string skirts.
Flax fibers from Dzudzuana cave

Back then, the art of weaving itself may have been considered a magical activity, and may have imparted special status to the practitioners. According to Cassin (1998), "weavings made from animal hairs were initially produced for the higher purposes intended by these practices. As soon as techniques of animal fiber spinning were mastered, the mysterious physical principle that caused these hairs to align and form a continuous thread must have engendered great awe and been viewed as a sign of powerful intervention by a superior force. It was no wonder then that these first weavings, and later actual loom woven textiles would have been decorated with patterns of significance and reserved for use in shrines and cult ceremonies." The creation of the image, rather than the image itself, may have had ritual significance. At more than a few Paleolithic cave painting sites, the painting's outline was retraced several times, particularly over naturalistic depictions of animals. Cassin suggests that this indicates a group ceremony in which all members ritualistically traced over the original lines or added elements to an image that had been drawn upon the wall by an artist, perhaps a culturally important member of the group. 

Knotting, spinning, weaving, are powerful archetypes. They symbolize creation, the cycle of life, the turning of the seasons, fate, destiny, the bonds of kinship and community. These are ancient symbols that still hold meaning today.

Textiles are still valued as sacred and cultural objects and remain ceremonially important. In India weaving is considered an act of creation and worship. Weaving communities such as the Padmasalis and Devangas believe that they were descendants of the lord of creation (c.f. Rau 2012). Catholic priests have ceremonial vestments that they put on with much pomp prior to the mass.

Next, the Neolithic!



  1. Thanks dear, lovely blog entry :)
    Strangely, archaeologists often forget how highly prized and valued textiles have been (or rather 'were', today we sadly try to get everything as cheap as possible and can't appreceiate the labour and love that should go into textile making).

    On the statue stelae and in the rock art of the Valcamonica looms and cloth were next to swords etc. That was when I realized how precious and prestigious textiles must have been.

    You should consider writing a proper peer-reviewed article about it.

  2. Thanks, Torwen! I love that the looms and cloth were set up next to swords. I'm thinking about gender archaeology and the way we moderns perceive "women's work" although I'm not convinced that textile arts were always considered women's work. Something to ponder! In Indonesia, women who can create textiles based on their dreams are given the same status as warriors. More about that later! Love you!!!!

  3. interesting blog