A roughly 35,000-year-old woolly mammoth tusk found in 2015 was used by early humans as a tool to make rope, scientists say. In an experiment using a replica of the artifact, a small team of researchers successfully created a rope made from cattail reeds.
Their rope-making experiences and analyses, published Wednesday in Science Advances, refute earlier beliefs that the ivory was a piece of artwork, or served other non-utilitarian purposes.
“You can make rope with it very easily, and the rope’s very strong,” Nicholas Conard, an archaeologist at the University of Tübingen in Germany and a co-author of the paper, tells New Scientist’s Michael Le Page. “Of course, that doesn’t mean that’s the only thing it could be. But compared to saying that it’s a symbol of power or some sort of artwork, I think the rope hypothesis is a pretty good one.”
In 2015, archaeologists in the Hohle Fels cave in southwestern Germany found 15 pieces of mammoth ivory. Based on radiocarbon dating of similar, previous discoveries nearby, the pieces were estimated to be between 35,000 and 40,000 years old. When assembled, they formed a 20.4-centimeter (8-inch) woolly mammoth tusk—also called the “Hohle Fels baton”—with four holes surrounded by grooves carved into its side.
Some researchers previously believed the odd ivory baton was ritualistic and used as a noisemaker, scepter, wand or piece of art. “Ritualism was something [archaeologists] used to ascribe everything to,” Wei Chu, an archaeologist at Leiden University in the Netherlands who was not involved in the study, tells Science’s Andrew Curry.
Others thought the instrument was used to straighten wooden shafts or work leather, Science News’ Bruce Bower reports. But close analysis of the baton’s four holes led the study authors to a different conclusion: Evidence of plant and soil residue and microscopic wear and tear indicated, perhaps, that the object was actually a tool used to make rope or twine.
“The combination of looking at it, seeing the grooves were intentionally made and finding those fibers made us think it was a tool,” co-author Veerle Rots, an archaeologist at the University of Liège in Belgium, tells Science.
Strong rope would have been useful for early humans, who could have used it to make tools, secure shelter, carry items, domesticate dogs and start fires. But the Stone Age rope itself—often made from plant material—has disintegrated over time. Impressions of early rope fossilized in clay or depictions of it in prehistoric art are essentially the only evidence that has survived into the modern day, the scientists write.
By 2020, Conard, Rots and other scientists were feeling confident in the rope hypothesis, the Guardian’s Robin McKie reported at the time. But it wasn’t until recently that they put it to the test.
Using a variety of materials—including wood, bronze, animal bones and the ivory tusk of an African warthog—the team created replicas of the Hohle Fels baton and tried their hand at using them for rope-making.
They tested materials that would have been available in the area some 30,000 years ago, including deer sinew, flax, hemp, linden, willow and nettles. But cattail reeds worked best, the team found—they could most easily thread those fibers through adjacent holes, maintain tension and pull the strands into a single rope.
With a little bit of practice, a team of four to five people created a five-meter-long (16.4-foot), strong, flexible rope in only ten minutes. Still, their feat isn’t conclusive evidence that the ivory was solely used for rope-making, the team concedes.
“But for the first time,” Conard tells Science News, “we have documented artifacts likely used to make rope and demonstrated how they worked.”