A piece of cloth dating from the Stone Age was analyzed in unprecedented detail, and you’ll never guess what it’s made from.
An ancient, rock-star city
When most people think about the Stone Age, they envision small groups of hunter-gatherers, maybe people living in caves, or at most, a small village. But in the Anatolia peninsula in today’s Turkey, the city of Çatalhöyük hosted as many as 10,000 people.
Established some 9,000 years ago and first excavated in 1958, Çatalhöyük has a rock-star status among archaeologists. It’s the largest known settlement from what archaeologists call the Neolithic and Chalcolithic periods.
“When Çatalhöyük was excavated from the late 1950s onwards, it was considered one of the oldest cities ever. Even though new discoveries show that this is no longer true, the place still has a high celebrity factor,” says Bender Jørgensen, a specialist in archaeological textiles and one of the authors of the new study.
Çatalhöyük appears to have been composed entirely of domestic buildings, with no obvious public buildings (or at least none identified yet), although the civilization that built the city appears to have engaged in complex religious practices. Surprisingly, all the houses archaeologists have found seem to have been kept scrupulously clean, which is highly unusual for a Neolithic settlement. Among the many findings from the city is also a piece of cloth, which could help researchers understand how these ancient people made their clothes.
Some archaeologists believe they made them from wool, while others believe they used linen instead. Now, thanks to the new study, we know the answer: it’s neither.
Jørgensen worked with Antoinette Rast-Eicher, a specialist in identifying fabric fibers. They put together a team to analyze the cloth carefully, and they were finally able to figure out what it’s made from: trees. Specifically, bast fibers — soft, woody fibers obtained from the inner bark of some trees.
“Bast fibres were used for thousands of years to make rope, thread, and in turn also yarn and cloth,” says Jørgensen.
Bast fibers can be extracted from the area between the bark and the wood in trees such as willow, oak, or linden. Apparently, the people of Catalhöyük used oak trees to fashion their clothes. They also used oak as a building material and probably harvested the bast fibers in the process.
Furthermore, linen — presumed by some researchers to be a key material for these ancient people — did not seem to play an important role at Catalhöyük. Not only did they not appear to grow flaxseed (from which linen is made), but they also didn’t import it from elsewhere.
Bast fibers are largely overlooked, but based on recent findings, researchers should pay more attention to them as a potential material for fashioning clothes.