Image: Wild flax fibers
Science / AAAS
The wild flax fibers shown here in photomicrographs were found in the Dzudzuana cave in Georgia.
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updated 9/11/2009 1:41:41 PM ET 2009-09-11T17:41:41

More than 30,000 years ago someone living in a cave in the Caucasus Mountains twisted wild flax together and dyed it, producing the earliest known fibers made by humans, scientists report.

"Making strings and ropes is a sophisticated invention," said Ofer Bar-Yosef, a professor of prehistoric archaeology at Harvard University. "They might have used this fiber to create parts of clothing, ropes, or baskets — for items that were mainly used for domestic activities."

The fibers were discovered in an analysis of clay deposits in Dzudzuana Cave in what is now the country Georgia, Bar-Yosef and co-authors report in Friday's edition of the journal Science.

The earliest previous evidence of fibers worked by humans was from Dolni Vestonice, a site in the Czech Republic dated to 28,000 years ago.

The newly discovered fibers were made from the wild form of flax, not a plant that had been domesticated for farming.

These ancestors really had a clear idea and method of dealing with a useful plant in its wild form to provide good quality fibers for different uses, Bar-Yosef said via e-mail.

"Innovation was a trait of modern humans when compared to earlier populations," he added. "The invention of strings and ropes is an old one and probably helped to change the organization of transport from earlier times."

Some of the fibers appear to have been dyed using plant materials common in the area, the researchers said. The color range included yellow, red, blue, violet, black and green.

"The colored fibers may indicate that the inhabitants of the cave were engaged in producing colorful textiles," they reported. There was also evidence of processing fur and skin at the site.

Overall, the team, which had been studying pollen remains, collected 787 fragments of fibers.

In addition to Bar-Yosef, the team included researchers from Hebrew University in Jerusalem; Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel; Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel and the Georgian State Museum in Tbilisi.

The research was funded by the American School of Prehistoric Research at Harvard's Peabody Museum.

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