This 39,600-Year-Old Bone May Have Been Used by Prehistoric Tailors

New research suggests early Homo sapiens punched holes in leather hides to create seams for clothing

Four different angles of the bone fragment
The bone fragment from four different angles, with a white scale bar representing one centimeter. The flat side of the bone contains puncture marks that suggest it was a punch board used for tailoring hides. Doyon et al. / Science Advances under CC BY-NC

A prehistoric bone fragment covered in puncture marks may have been used by ancient artisans while tailoring clothes, scientists say.

Twenty-eight indentations dot the mysterious bone’s surface, though not all are easily visible. The artifact was discovered at a site in Catalonia, Spain, about 12.5 miles south of Barcelona, and dates to around 39,600 years ago, during the Pleistocene epoch.

In a paper published this month in the journal Science Advances, researchers hypothesize that people may have held leather over the bone while making holes in it with a chisel. By sewing through these holes, they could create a fitted garment.

If true, the bone would be the earliest-known example of a punch board and predate the first known bone eye needles in Europe by 15,000 years, according to the study.

“It’s a very significant discovery,” Ian Gilligan, an archaeologist who studies the origins of clothing at the University of Sydney in Australia and did not contribute to the research, tells New Scientist’s Alison George. “We have no direct evidence for clothes in the Pleistocene, so finding any indirect evidence is valuable. The oldest surviving fragments of cloth in the world date from around 10,000 years ago.”

“What [the new finding] tells us is that the first modern humans who lived in Europe had the technology in their toolkit for making fitted clothes,” Luc Doyon, a co-author of the study and an archaeologist at the University of Bordeaux in France, says to Science News’ McKenzie Prillaman.

The bone dates to shortly after the first modern humans arrived in Europe around 40,000 years ago. At that time, clothing had likely already been around for millennia—humans may have first donned garments more than 120,000 years ago, according to Haaretz’s Ruth Schuster. Some estimates put the first clothes even earlier: A 2010 study on clothing lice suggested that we may have been dressing ourselves as long as 170,000 years ago.

But it’s difficult for scientists to directly study clothing’s origins, since the garments can disintegrate over time. “We do not have much information about clothes, because they’re perishable,” Doyon tells New Scientist. “They are an early technology we’re in the dark about.”

The bone fragment may shed some light on the issue. It appears to be from the hip of an animal in the Bovidae family, which includes antelopes, sheep and buffalo, or from an equid, such as a horse. The 28 punctures include two distinct sets—a group of ten “remarkably similar” notches in a row and a group of 15 that are unaligned—as well as three smaller, isolated marks, the authors write. The team concludes these indentations came from six separate episodes of punching holes in hides.

In general, a series of marks in a line could signal an object was used to record information or was a piece of artwork. But in the case of this bone, both explanations seemed unlikely—some of the holes are hard to see and the bone wasn’t manipulated in other ways, Doyon tells Science News.

To determine how the Pleistocene people made the punctures, the researchers had trained experimenters try to reproduce the punctures themselves with a variety of ancient tools, including shaped antlers, bones and horns. They found that placing hides over a bone and hammering a pointed, chisel-like flint tool through the hide resulted in the same types of puncture marks seen on the artifact.

“We could produce exactly the same type of modifications. So, we made our conclusions,” Doyon tells Haaretz.

After making a series of holes in the hide, people could then push thread through them to make seams, Doyon tells New Scientist. The results are evidence that hunter-gatherers at the time had the knowledge and technology to make fitted clothing and other tailored leather products, such as shoes, per the paper.

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