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Deep-time wear: Stone & Bronze Age advances in enduring attire

“The job of fashion and art is to be froth—quick, irrelevant, engaging, self-preoccupied, and cruel. Try this! No, no, try this! It is culture cut free to experiment as creatively and irresponsibly as the society can bear.”

Fashion and art are the superficial layer of contemporary civilization, fast and ever-changing, and influencing deeper, slower layers that need different, formal, more sophisticated types of consensuses to evolve.

Don’t mess with Ötzi; reconstruction of the Iceman, South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology, Bolzano

As we question some of the excesses of fashion, especially when disruptions such as a pandemic or a shift in global consumption due to inflation generates millions of tons of clothing that will end up in piles dumped in surprising places such as the Atacama desert or the outskirts of the Ghanaian capital Accra, some wonder about the actual nature of clothing.

Instead of tracing back to the western canon of fashion, some try to learn ancient ways of creating a local wardrobe, often working on the very raw materials used. In the Bay Area, Rebecca Burgess made a few years ago a 150-mile wardrobe, an exploratory project to bring back to life local fiber, “real” color, and the peer-to-peer economy around it. But how about exploring clothing samples and techniques from prehistoric attires? How did our remote ancestors manage their “wardrobes”?

What are you wearing?

Some of the oldest preserved pieces of clothing are remarkable vestiges of skill, adaptation, and performance. They were made a few thousand years ago, but evolutionary anthropologists believe humans have worn clothes since time immemorial despite the lack of remains due to the fast deterioration of fur, leather, or plant fiber compared to other artifacts made of stone, bone, shell, or metal.

Relying on the emergence of the body louse, a parasitic species that only thrive in humans and speciated from its parent species with our adoption of clothing, our northward migration from warm climates prompted the emergence of more protective, sophisticated clothing over 100,000 years ago. In September 2021, scientists confirmed the existence of cloth remains in deposits found in Morocco made 120,000 years ago, made of fur, leather, leaves, and grass.

Reconstruction of Ötzi the Iceman on his hay-stuffed shoes and goatskin leggings

The oldest preserved leather shoe, made 5,500 years ago, was found in the Armenian cave of Areni-1, which also hosts the remainings of the oldest wine-making site: improvements in clothing have been related to more extensive cultural expressions since time immemorial.

The Areni-1 shoe’s technique and style, a one-piece leather proto-moccasin secured with plant fiber laces, was pervasive across Western Eurasia during the Chalcolithic and Early Bronze Age. Researchers speculate whether the shoe contained grass as insulation to keep the foot warm or to preserve the shoe’s shape.

Warm leather shoes before it was cool

Ötzi the Iceman, Europe’s oldest known natural human mummy, may have a clue to answer the dilemma. At the time he died in the Alps 5,300 years ago, Ötzi had spent 40-odd years farming and herding according to his diet. The mummified remains of the tattooed man found in a glacier in the Tyrolean Alps in 1991 also included clothing: at the time of his violent death, Ötzi was wearing a skin coat, leggings also made of animal skin, a fur hat, and hay-stuffed shoes.

Genetic analysis of his remains traces the Iceman’s ancestry to the adjacent Alpine valleys, where he died of an injury, and to the island of Sardinia. He was prepared to endure extreme weather found in the mountains with proper clothing and provisions, though remainings of an arrowhead in his left shoulder and signs of violence such as cuts in the hands, wrists, and chest, and cerebral trauma, suggest Ötzi might have been too weak to make it over the nearby pass. bleeding to death.

Areni-1 leather shoes from the Calcolithic (5,500 years old, found in the cave Areni-1, Armenia)

The oldest preserved shoes as of today were not made of leather but of plant fiber. Found in the Fort Rock Basin in Oregon, the pair was skillfully waved out of twined sagebrush bark 9,300 years ago and had both a flat sole and a toe wrap most likely adapted to the owner’s feet.

Hunter-gatherer societies lacked the specialization that emerged in Neolithic settlements, and the transmission of cultural knowledge didn’t account for the artisan’s customization of a particular piece of clothing. No other incentives than comfort and adaptation to specific needs determined abstract concepts that, later on, we’ve come to culturally define as “quality” or “beauty.”

Selective and pragmatic

At an ancient Georgian cave in the Caucasus Mountains not far from the Areni-1 remainings in Armenia, archeologists unearthed flax fibers weaved into cloth, the oldest samples of their kind, made 34,000 years ago. Flexible and comfortable near the skin, plant-based cloth may have helped human societies to preserve their body temperature under animal skin covers such as hide coats and fur hats.

Plant-based overlays may have emerged and rapidly evolved, like richer diets, out of necessity, though some questions remain unanswered. Ötzi’s wardrobe, for example, doesn’t tell us whether his clothing was pure utility or it also reflected the social status of the wearer, as well as the activity performed (in Ötzi’s case, the demanding traverse of mountain passes over Alpine valleys).

Found in Germany, the oldest known purse (4,500 years old) was decorated with dog teeth

One study published on the samples of leather and fur found with the Iceman describes the attire as “selective and pragmatic.” Ötzi was no fool and knew how to withstand near-freezing temperatures. Both loincloth and hide coat were made of sheepskin, coming from animals closer to modern domestic European sheep than to the undomesticated species. The coat included goat skin parts, also from goats that share genetic markers with animals roaming Central Europe nowadays.

Most likely, the shoes’ shoelaces came from the European genetic population of domesticated cattle, a technique still appreciated among shoe customers nowadays: what was a survival skill in Bronze Age Europe would turn out to be a luxury marker of high-end artisanal shoes in a globalized market of a commodified industry in which waste accumulates with the shift of consumer confidence.

As artisanal textiles powered the early Industrial Revolution, clothing previously considered a luxury became the first international mass market, which evolved into commodified and fast fashion in the late twentieth century. Now, fashion, like music, is one of the superficial layers of our civilization and also a fast one that feels more irrelevant as we get older but defines adolescents and youngsters, according to theorists of system thinking like Stewart Brand.

Do you like my purse?

Things were different back in the Iceman’s time. To him, good clothing was the one that best fit his survival (rarely a factor in contemporary fashion), though there’s more cumulative evidence of ceremonial remaining, such as little idols or even jewelry, with more chance to withstand time thanks to the materials they were made of. Remainings found in Croatia confirm that Neanderthals wore jewelry such as blings made of eagle talons. The eagle talons were found to belong to three different birds and have cut marks, notches for stringing, and evidence of polishing. Researchers think they formed a necklace or bracelet.

As for other prehistoric “accessories,” fragments of countless artifacts persist though few have done so entirely. A 4,500-year-old purse unearthed in Germany survived in its original shape thanks to its decorative technique: even though the textile fabric or leather had disintegrated, several rows of dog teeth were used as a finish, likely on the outer flap of a handbag. Bronze Age fashion? Susanne Friederich, a researcher from the Sachsen-Anhalt State Archaeology and Preservation Office, suggests the purely ornamental purpose, probably related to status:

“Over the years, the leather or fabric disappeared, and all that’s left is the teeth. They’re all pointing in the same direction, so it looks a lot like a modern handbag flap.”

Though surprising from today’s vantage point, such ornaments must have been most likely common in the region from the Paleolithic to late Bronze Age period and present in Stone Age northern and central European burials. Dog and wolf teeth and mussel shells shaped the ornament of ceremonial studded blankets across the region. Dog teeth made it also in hair ornaments and necklaces.

An old trend: goat skin leggings

Other accessories have a more utilitarian origin: as humans settled around and above the Polar Ice Circle of North America and Greenland, clothing, shelters, and tools adapted to new survival needs, but also specialized artifacts such as snow goggles: made of bone leather or wood and used by the ancestors of the Inuit, they included thin openings to regulate the amount of sunlight reflected on a snow-white environment, thus preventing snow-blindness.

Ötzi’s clothing remains were made from several animals from at least two domesticated species, suggesting the clothes were stitched together with care, as well as maintained, the worn-out parts substituted or repaired. Previous studies had concluded that the Iceman’s leggings had been crafted out of a species of dog, fox, or wolf, but new evidence points to the use of domesticated goat leather.

Among Ötzi well-preserved remains, and besides leggings and shoes, there are also: a fragment of his goat- and sheepskin coat, bear fut hat, grass matting and sheepskin loincloth

Ötzi’s leggings weren’t an oddity or innovation within the region his group roamed. Back in 2008, Swiss archeologists found remains of a pair of leggings dating back 6,500 years (or 4,500 BC), also made of domesticated goat leather. The artifacts recovered in the Schnidejoch pass, as the local glacier has receded in the last decades, include leather remnants of shoes and leggings inside a long birch bark holder somebody had carried in, though nobody remains have been found.

Albert Hafner, an archeologist, based in Bern, declared in 2008 that the carrier may have experienced an accident:

“There’s still a small chance that there’s a corpse in the ice. But all the Neolithic objects were found rather far from the remaining ice patch so the probability of finding a body is very low, but it can still happen.”

We’ve forgotten about oak tree yarn

Caves, glaciers, high altitude ceremonies (like the so-called “frozen mummies” of the Andes), or protected thumbs (like those of Ancient Egypt) are a portal to ancient cultures as those extreme environments helped preserve organic matter; artifacts such as clothing or wooden tools and structures decompose easily, further complicating our ability to understand how our remote ancestors dressed and why.

German filmmaker Felix Randau adapted Ötzi’s odyssey and eventual death at the top of an Alpine pass into a feature film, “Iceman” (Der Mann aus dem Eis, 2017), a German-Italian-Austrian adventure drama

Çatalhöyük, the world’s largest known Stone Age settlement, debunked many of the ideas that had prevailed about Stone Age complex societies. At its peak between 8,000 and 9,000 years ago, millennia before the Akkadian Empire and Ancient Egypt, Çatalhöyük reached over 10,000 inhabitants.

The artifacts found in Çatalhöyük allow us to peek into quotidian life in Anatolian societies between the Neolithic and Chalcolithic periods. It’s also a portal to reconstruct with evidence of how clothing was evolving in temperate climates across the Mediterranean Basin and the Fertile Crescent.

Experts in archaeological textiles, such as Lise Bender Jørgensen, a research fellow at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts in Copenhagen, have studied how weaving evolved from basic rudimentary procedures to wool and linen weaving. During decades, the remainings at the Çatalhöyük site didn’t yield any conclusion, which finally came with a surprise, according to Jørgensen: the main garment for clothing at the time besides animal fur and skins turned out to be neither wool nor linen, but oak tree yarn.

What can we learn from our ancestors?

Several pieces unearthed on-site by Stanford archaeologist Ian Hodder turned out to be made between 8,500 and 8,700 years ago. Hodder showed the cloth fragments to Bender Jørgensen and two experts on the topic: Antoinette Rast-Eicher, an expert in fabric fibers from the University of Bern; and Sabine Karg, an archaeobotanist from the Free University of Berlin. According to Bender Jørgensen:

“In the past, researchers largely neglected the possibility that the fabric fibers could be anything other than wool or linen, but lately another material has received more attention.”

People in Çatalhöyük were capable of weaving clothes from treated bast fibers, including different kinds of yarn, grass, and fibers derived from oak trees. Such woven fabrics didn’t emerge from anywhere, and some of the oldest pieces of rope are derived from similar plant fibers.

People at Çatalhöyük extracted bast fiber from local oak trees: found between the bark and the wood surface of trees such as oak, willow, or linden, the process had been perfected to accomplish a leap from thick threads to make rope to thinner though equally resistant knitting yarn. Instead of importing linen from elsewhere, as it was believed, the Chalcolithic society could get construction material for their homes and clothing fibers from different parts of the same trees.

Unlike the remainings worn by individuals living in demanding environments that required specialized clothing, other ancient attires evolved as a cultural artifact defining the status of the wearer and its position within the hierarchy of the society to which they belonged.

The world’s oldest dress ever found, the Tarkhan Dress, was excavated in 1913 from a First Dynasty tomb at Tarkhan, an Egyptian cemetery located near Cairo in Egypt. Made of linen over 5,000 years ago, it’s already sophisticated clothing that signaled the status of the wearer, and probably a particular, ceremonial use, already detached from the pure utility of survival.

The dress has a carefully executed weave of 22-23 warps per centimeter and 13-14 wefts per centimeter. Found in an ancient necropolis, the dress’ owner was dressing for the ages.