Two spindle whorls from the LBK of Lower Austria (diameter: 2,5 and 1,5 cm; about 5000 BC). At this time hand-spinning and loom-based weaving was fully established in Neolithic societies.
Perishable materials, including cordage, nets and textiles, have long been recognized as an important piece of forager technology in the Upper Paleolithic. Especially the role of textiles within prehistoric communities is thought to be socially, ideologically and culturally important. However such technologies are nearly invisible in the archaeological record because the organic materials are so rarely preserved. This is unfortunate, because the simple presence or absence of such an enormous class of raw materials has vast implications for our understanding Paleolithic lifestyles.
Perishable materials comprise up to 95% of material culture in ethnographically documented forager groups (Owen 1995). Archaeological work at wet sites (lakes in the Alpine foreland, the La Draga site in Spain, bodies from the Iron Age in bogs), and other sites of extraordinary preservation (e.g. organic material from the salt mines in Austria, the Alpine Ice Man) indicates that the remains found in most archaeological contexts may be far from representative of the complete array of items used by prehistoric populations.
At Dzudzuana Cave (Republic of Georgia) flax (Linum usitatissimum) fibers were recovered from four Upper Paleolithic occupations dating between 26 and 32 ka BP. These fibers had clearly been modified, cut, twisted and even dyed gray, black, turquoise and pink, most likely with locally available natural plant pigments.
Soffer and co-workers have studied female figurines from Middle-East Europe and argue that they are dressed in apparel that has been twined or knit. Soffer has also suggested that many Paleolithic antler and bone artifacts interpreted as hunting implements were actually used in the production of textiles. There are some data from microwear analysis to substantiate these arguments. Owen’s research on the division of labor during the German Magdalenian and her studies of bone needles and awls also suggest that plant materials played a significant role in Magdalenian.
Finally clay fragments imprinted with cordage, knots and woven fabrics come from several Pavlovian sites, including Dolni Vestonice and Pavlov (Czech Republic; 27ka BP). At Pavlov impressions of knotted nets survived in clay which maybe have been used to capture birds. The textiles, basketry, and cordage specimens represented in the impressions were made of plant rather than animal fibers, though an identification of the species used is impossible. These findings suggest that weaving technology of course dates back into the late Pleistocene.
Ohalo II, a submerged and well-preserved early “Epipaleolithic” site in the Sea of Galilee, Israel also contained cordage dated to about ~21 Ka BP. The only surviving Palaeolithic fragments of ropes are preserved as apparent natural casts come from Lascaux (19 ka BP), but it has not been possible to determine the material used in its construction.
Who handled the work with perishable materials? Soffer suggests, that cross-cultural ethnographic data could indicate that these tasks were associated with women, but until now this remains speculative.