Morocco cave dig shows clothes were made with bone tools 120,000 years ago

Archaeologists stumbled upon animal bones shaped into tools suggesting they were used to make garments

The entrance to Contrebandiers Cave in Morocco, where bone tools were discovered by archaeologists. Photo: Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History
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The discovery of bone tools in Morocco has provided strong evidence that clothing was made by people 120,000 years ago.

Archaeologists unearthed the rare objects in the Contrebandiers Cave, near the north African country’s Atlantic coast, giving them valuable insight into the ancient lives of the region's former inhabitants.

Despite extensive excavations in modern times, archaeologists lack a clear understanding of the origins of clothing.

This is because furs, animal skins and other materials used by humans to shield themselves from elements do not preserve well and are likely to disintegrate when buried.

The discovery of animal bones which appear to have been shaped into tools suggests clothing was made in ancient times.

The research was carried out by experts at the Institute of Human Origins at Arizona State University and the ‘Lise Meitner’ Pan-African Evolution research group at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History (MPI-SHH).

Dr Emily Hallett, who took part in the study, said that of the 12,000 bone fragments more than 60 were fashioned into tools.

She identified a pattern of cut marks on the carnivore bones suggesting that, rather than processing them for meat, the occupants of the cave were skinning them for fur.

“This was a critical time period and location for the early members of our species and I was primarily interested in reconstructing the diet and habitat niche of the people who used this cave,” she said.

The invention of clothing and the making of the tools needed to create garments and footwear are milestones in the story of humanity and experts believe they are crucial to discovering the strides made by people in cultural and cognitive evolution.

Researchers believe clothes and the tools used to make them were essential in enabling people to expand their niche from Pleistocene Africa into new environments which brought new ecological challenges.

Dr Hallett compared the tools she identified with others in the archaeological record and found that they had the same shapes and marks as leather tools described by other researchers.

“The combination of carnivore bones with skinning marks and bone tools likely used for fur processing provide highly suggestive proxy evidence for the earliest clothing in the archaeological record," she said.

”But given the level of specialisation in this assemblage, these tools are likely part of a larger tradition with earlier examples that haven’t yet been found.”

As well as animal bones, researchers found the tip of a tooth from a whale or dolphin which was consistent with use as a pressure flaker, a device used for shaping stone tools.

It is the earliest documented use of a marine mammal tooth by humans and the only verified marine mammal remain from the Pleistocene of North Africa.

“The Contrebandiers Cave bone tools demonstrate that by roughly 120,000 years ago, Homo sapiens began to intensify the use of bone to make formal tools and use them for specific tasks, including leather and fur working," Dr Hallett said.

“This versatility appears to be at the root of our species and not a characteristic that emerged after expansions into Eurasia.”

She said she hoped to collaborate with other researchers in the future to identify comparable skinning patterns and gain a better understanding of the origins and diffusion of this behaviour.

Updated: November 22, 2021, 8:42 AM