A prehistoric innovation marked a major change in the way people dressed, scientists say

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The eyed needle, a sewing instrument made from bone, antler or ivory that first appeared about 40,000 years ago in southern Siberia, could hide key clues about the fashion’s beginnings, a new study suggests.

Researchers looked at existing archaeological evidence from dozens of sites in Europe, the Middle East, Southeast Asia, southern Africa and Australia where ancient clothing-making tools had been discovered, according to the study, published June 28 in the journal Science Advances. The circumstances surrounding eye needles raised a number of questions.

“Eyed needles made sewing more efficient and reflected the advent of tailored or tailored clothing,” said lead researcher Ian Gilligan, an honorary associate professor of archaeology at the University of Sydney in Australia.

However, there is historical evidence for earlier tools used for making clothing, albeit with less precision. “So why did eye needles start to appear in colder parts of Eurasia as the climate became colder, starting around 40,000 years ago and leading up to the peak of the last ice age, around 22,000 years ago?”

According to Gilligan, this greater precision may have served a purpose other than simply modifying the skin of prehistoric humans: self-expression.

“During the colder periods of the last ice age, people had to cover their bodies more or less continuously,” he said, adding that clothing would have negated some of the traditional forms of body decoration for social purposes common in many hunter-gatherer societies, such as body painting, tattooing and scarification.

“If people have to wear clothes all the time because of the cold, how do you decorate yourself? How do you change your appearance for social purposes? And the answer is that you move the decoration from the surface of the skin to the surface of the clothing,” Gilligan said.

According to this interpretation, eye needles, one of the symbols of the Paleolithic, were not only tailor’s tools, but also instruments of social and cultural development of prehistoric man.

A sign of change

Eye needles weren’t used exclusively for decorative purposes, the new study notes. They also may have been used to make tighter clothing or to tailor layers, such as underwear.

Archaeological finds have revealed older tailoring tools, such as bone awls, which are simply sharpened animal bones used to cut animal hides.

“We don’t need needles with eyes to make clothes,” he said. “We now know that other technologies existed before them, which raises the question of why needles with eyes were invented.”

An artist's illustration shows how prehistoric people could use custom-made clothing for decorative purposes. - Mariana Ariza

An artist’s illustration shows how prehistoric people could use custom-made clothing for decorative purposes. – Mariana Ariza

There is evidence for the decoration of clothing during the last Ice Age, Gilligan added, citing the discovery of a cemetery near Moscow where skeletons believed to be 30,000 years old were decorated with thousands of pierced ivory beads and shells. “In all likelihood, they were sewn onto the outer surface of clothing for decoration,” he said.

This evidence would support the theory that eyed needles played a role in decoration, without ruling out their use in dressmaking. “Those two purposes, they’re not mutually exclusive at all. And in fact they go together,” Gilligan said. “If you’re completely covering a body, you need to transfer the decoration to the clothing, and eyed needles would be useful for both.”

It is likely that the hypothesis will never find material confirmation, since the oldest garments ever found are about 5,000 years old — textiles and leather cannot be preserved for much longer. However, the practice would suggest a much earlier cultural and social use of garments than previously assumed.

“Clothing only became socially useful towards the end of the last Ice Age. Therefore, we think that clothing was first used by humans when it was not yet needed for thermal insulation, around 12,000 years ago,” Gilligan said.

“Our research shows that needles with eyes are a marker for this change in the function of clothing, from thermal to social necessity,” he added.

Connecting with the past

This study is important not only because it highlights the significance of clothing and attire for understanding the development of human cultures, but also because it brings together different perspectives in art and science, said Liza Foley, assistant professor at Ghent University and curator of fashion and textiles at the Royal Museums of Art and History in Brussels, Belgium. Foley was not involved in the research.

According to April Nowell, a professor and Distinguished Lansdowne Fellow in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Victoria in Canada, it can sometimes be difficult for scientists to connect people to a distant past like the Paleolithic. Archaeologists also have the added challenge of getting the most out of every artifact they find.

“Objects like clothing don’t last for thousands of years, but bone needles and mammoth ivory do, and they can tell us something about the technological knowledge of our ancestors and the ways in which they adapted to their physical and cultural environments,” said Nowell, who was also not involved in the study.

It is these kinds of objects that we all have a connection to and that help humanize the past, she added.

“Apart from the material aspect, the needle with the eye has not changed in practical terms over the past millennia,” she said by email.

There is evidence for loom-woven and even dyed textiles dating back to about 30,000 years ago, she concluded. As a result, scientists can infer what kinds of decision-making people would have gone through to create a spun, dyed garment — which plants to use, the method of spinning, how to decorate the garment and ultimately how to protect it from the elements when they lived outdoors most of the time.

“And all of this knowledge would be passed down from generation to generation,” Nowell said, “so something as simple and seemingly insignificant as a needle opens a window into the unexpected richness of the lives of Ice Age people.”

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