While most students are familiar with flax in the context of breakfast cereals, the fibrous plant transcended its crunchy, delicious role to provide Harvard archaeologist Ofer Bar-Yosef with some surprisingly ground-breaking findings.
An archaeological expedition funded by the American School of Prehistoric Research at Harvard’s Peabody Museum resulted in the discovery of the oldest fibers known to have been used by humans—a finding that helps date the rise of civilization due to the importance of string in the origins of human culture.
The fibers were discovered in the Republic of Georgia by a team of archaeologists, including Bar-Yosef, a professor of prehistoric archaeology, and archaeologists from universities in Israel and the Republic of Georgia.
The team’s findings, published in the Sept. 11 issue of Science, indicate that the fibers are at least 34,000 years old. The earliest-known fibers before the discovery, found at the Dolni Vestonice site in the Czech Republic, date to 30,000 years ago.
According to Bar-Yosef, the discovery was “accidental.” When team member Eliso V. Kvavadze of the Institute of Paleobiology at the National Museum of Georgia analyzed the pollen content in soil samples to determine the change in climate over time, she came upon what appeared to be fiber fragments.
These fragments were later identified as flax fibers. This flax would have been gathered from the environment, most likely by women, according to Bar-Yosef. Flax was not domesticated until the Neolithic era thousands of years later, he added.
Some of the fibers found were spun, twisted, or knotted, and many appear to have been dyed, said Bar-Yosef. Though only small fragments of fibers were found at the dig site, archaeologists “can infer from looking at these kinds of fibers that they were making strings [and] ropes,” said Bar-Yosef. The strings and ropes could then be used to “serve as baskets [or] carrying equipment” or to tie fur clothing together.
According to Naomi F. Miller, an anthropologist and research project manager at the University of Pennsylvania Museum, “string and twine are very important for the development of human culture,” making this a “remarkable discovery.”
In addition to the flax fibers, the team discovered other particles such as insect remains and fungi that would indicate that textiles were once present in the area, Bar-Yosef said.For recent research, faculty profiles, and a look at the issues facing Harvard scientists, check out The Crimson's science page.