Prehistoric Needles

Prehistoric Needles
Prehistoric Needles – F. d’Errico/ L. Doyon


In modern times, clothing production is a highly industrialized process, utilizing complex sewing machines with numerous intricate components. Yet, the basic idea of creating garments dates back to the Palaeolithic age, before written records.

Sewing was facilitated by a humble tool – a pin-shaped piece of bone with a drilled eye on one end and a pointed tip on the other. Though it may appear uncomplicated, this prehistoric innovation was a pivotal game-changer during the Stone Age.

Needles have been an integral tool for humans for thousands of years, used for everything from sewing clothes to creating intricate works of art. In fact, the oldest known needles date back over 50,000 years, to the prehistoric era. These ancient needles offer insight into the lives and skills of our early ancestors and the technological advancements that were taking place even in the distant past.

The invention of sewing needles revolutionized the way we make clothing, enabling us to create garments that fit properly and offer superior protection against the elements. Without this prehistoric invention, our clothing would consist of pieces of cloth or leather with holes cut into them and tied to our bodies with straps.

Magdalenian bone needles
Magdalenian bone needles – Penn Museum Bulletin

Sibudu Cave

The earliest form of sewing likely involved tying animal skins together using bone shards as needles and animal sinew or plant material as thread. The primary challenge was creating a small enough hole in the needle matrix, such as a bone sliver, without damaging the material. This is why awls were used to separate, rather than cut, threads when making eyelet holes in the fabric.

The oldest prehistoric needles ever found were discovered in the Sibudu Cave, South Africa. The needles, which date back to approximately 57,000 – 63,000 years ago, were made from bone and are just a few centimetres long. These needles were likely used to create clothing or other textiles, a skill that would have been critical for survival in the harsh conditions of prehistoric times.

The needles were discovered by archaeologist Lyn Wadley and her team during excavations of the Sibudu Cave in 2008. Located on the banks of the uThongathi River, the Sibudu Cave it’s known for its rich archaeological record that spans thousands of years. The cave is particularly important because it provides evidence of human occupation during the Middle Stone Age, a time period that is not well understood.

Denisova Cave

Since the 1970s, Russian scientists have been extensively exploring the Denisova Cave in Altai Krai, Russia. The cave, which maintains a constant temperature of zero, has proven to be a treasure trove of well-preserved fossils and artifacts from early human history.

Location of Denisova Cave
Location of Denisova Cave

One such discovery was a 7-centimetre (2 3/4 inch) needle that was crafted and used by our extinct Denisovan ancestors, a hominin species or subspecies that was recently discovered. Scientists found the sewing tool, complete with a threaded hole. Surprisingly, it appears to be still functional after being buried for 50,000 years.

Needle from Denisova Cave
Needle from Denisova Cave – The needle is seen as providing proof that the long-gone Denisovans – named after the cave – were more sophisticated than previously believed – Source: Siberian Times

The needle is considered evidence that the Denisovans, who were named after the cave, were more advanced than previously thought. It predates a complex, modern-looking piece of polished jewellery made of chlorite by the Denisovans by about 10,000 years. The needle was created from the bone of an unidentified, large bird.

The discovery of these needles is significant because it shows that early humans were capable of creating and using sophisticated tools. The process of making a needle from bone would have required a great deal of skill and knowledge, and it is likely that these early humans were using other tools and techniques that have not yet been discovered. The fact that the needles were made from bone suggests that animals were an important part of their lives and that they had the knowledge and skill to use all parts of an animal for their own purposes.

Additionally, the creation of clothing and textiles would have been an important part of social and cultural practices, and it is likely that these skills were passed down through generations.

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