Evidence of Fur and Leather Clothing, Among World’s Oldest, Found in Moroccan Cave

Humans likely sported clothes made of jackal, fox and wildcat skins some 120,000 years ago. A bone tool from Contrebandiers Cave likely used for making clothes out of the skin of predators. Jacopo Niccolò Cerasoni

Fur is a controversial fashion statement these days. But stepping out in a wildcat cape or jackal wrap was de rigueur for Pleistocene humans, according to the recent discovery of a 120,000-year-old leather and fur production site that contains some of the oldest archaeological evidence for human clothing.

Homo sapiens at the site first made and wore clothes around the onset of an Ice Age which may suggest that, even in relatively mild Morocco, clothes were adopted as a way to keep warm. But the invention of animal-based apparel also corresponds with the appearance of personal adornments, like shell beads, which hints that prehistoric clothing, like today’s styles, could have been about style as well as functionality.

Emily Hallett, of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Germany, didn’t set out to investigate where and when humans started wearing clothes, which decompose and vanish after a few thousand years at most. Initially interested in diet, she was examining bones to see which animals Pleistocene humans ate, and how they butchered them, in Contrebandiers Cave on Morocco’s Atlantic Coast.

But Hallett found bones she wasn’t expecting: dozens of tools carefully shaped, smoothed and polished into implements ideal for scraping hides clean to make leather, and scraping pelts to produce furs. “They look like the tools that people still use today to process hides for leather and fur,” Hallett says, noting that similar tools have also been found associated with the same tasks in far younger archaeological sites. Hallett, who co-authored a study on the findings in the September 16 issue of the journal iScience, worked with a team that included the late Harold Dibble, an influential archaeologist from the University of Pennsylvania.

The researchers found 62 different bone tools in Middle Stone Age layers dated to 90,000 to 120,000 years ago. Despite their age the implements represent relatively specialized instruments for the tasks at hand, which suggests that humans first started using more crude versions of such implements to process fur and skins at an even earlier date.

Oddly a single marine mammal tooth was also found in the cave, dated to about 113,000 years ago, which represents a first for Pleistocene archaeological sites in North Africa. Future molecular analysis should identify the species but the shape strongly suggests that it’s from an ancient sperm whale. Signs of wear on the tooth might have happened while the animal was alive, but it might have also been used as some type of flaking tool, used to sharpen another tool’s edge by applying careful pressure.

But the bone tools tell only half of the story. Hallett also noticed that a lot of carnivore bones piled in the cave still bore the telltale marks of being cut by humans.

The remains of sand foxes, golden jackals and wildcats clearly showed marks like those still created in skinning techniques. Incisions were made to detach the skin at each of the animal’s four paws, so that the skin could be pulled in one piece to the animal’s head. Skin at the head was then removed by cutting around the lips, which is also evidenced by ancient cut marks. These carnivore species show no marks of butchery that would suggest they were eaten, only the cuts necessary to remove skin. On the other hand, the remains of other animals including bovids akin to ancient cows, show clear signs that they were processed to produce meat for the Pleistocene dinner table.

“Once those two pieces were there, bone tools used to prepare leather and fur and carnivore bones that have marks for fur removal, we put that together and realized that it’s most likely this was evidence for the making of clothing,” notes Hallett.

Workers sun drying hides in a Fez tannery may be carrying on a Moroccan tradition that is 120,000 years old. Emily Yuko Hallett

The evidence suggests that North African cave dwellers were making and wearing clothing long before the great migrations of humans to which all living non-Africans can trace their roots. When those Homo sapiens left Africa to populate the corners of the globe, it appears that they likely did so adorned in an array of animal skins and furs.

Source: Smithsonian

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