Here’s an audio version
People are smart! It’s an aphorism that I come back to again and again when considering things like astronomy in the ancient world. Lately I’ve been thinking this in the context of early manifestations of textile production. Evidence has been found of cloth production dating back 36,000 years, long before the agricultural revolution.
How much spare time did a prehistoric hunter/gatherer have to wonder what would happen if you soaked flax stems in water for a while, crushed and removed the woody bits, pulled and straighten the fibers, spun them into yarn, then knit the yarn to make cloth? What would even suggest such a course of action to people likely living on the edge of subsistence? I like to picture some plucky Palaeolithic ancestor draping a length of fabric artfully around herself and asking her mate, “Do you fancy me in this?” Or more hopefully, “Does this make me look fat?”
Surely furs and skins were warmer and more durable. Was it an early venture into lightweight summer wear? It’s been suggested that these first efforts were directed towards making netting to catch birds, a practical use which may have lead to the idea of the ornamental. Shell beads dating to 80,000 years ago have been discovered by archeologists, so the idea of self-adornment is very old.
Is there any other animal which adorns itself? I can’t think of one. Is this one of the qualities that defines us?
I don’t think I can begin to imagine how labour-intensive basic survival is without all the comforts of prosperity and the industrial revolution, that I lounge back against each day. Producing fabric from vegetable sources and no machinery is hugely time-consuming. Reading about its origins gives me a welcome sense of admiration and optimism about what people are capable of.