Eyed Bone Needle

An eyed bone needle from an old collection of “palafit” artifacts found at the Lake Costance (Neolithic or Bronze Age*).

Genetic data suggest that body hair of hominines was lost c 1.2-3 Ma. Out of Africa, Early Homo sp. occupied parts of Europe and Central Asia that were cooler and increased their vulnerability to cold stress. Our ancestors established long-lasting populations in these regions, which coped successfully with variable climates. Clothing was likely a necessary technology for early hominines in Eurasia, but the timing of early clothing use will never be exactly known.

Much cultural progress is made by combining older cultural techniques, which in turn may lead to techniques with complete new qualities. This has nothing to do with a “creative explosion, fully fledged modern thinking and the human revolution….”. Making holes into shells, that were later used as pendants is known since the MSA. Instruments made of bone or other organic material, which could have been used in a needle-like intention appeared during the Early Upper Paleolithic. The invention of eyed needles (the combination of drilling a hole into a needle) was a great leap forward and enabled the production of tight clothes, which helped people to cope with the cold.

The history of eyed needles is a good example for the Diffusion of Innovations  theory. The oldest eyed needles have been found at Mezmaiskaya in the EUP (“Ahmarian like”) layers 1A and 1B, at least 33-36 k.a old. There are also reports about needles during the EUP of the Kostenki-Borshchevo area dating into the time interval of 40-30 k.a. BP. Eyed needles seem to become more common during the Gravettian, Solutrean and Epigravettian periods (For example during the upper Solutrean at Badegoule and Laugerie Haute, the Epigravettian at Grubgraben/Kammern [19 k.a. BP], the Epigravettian at Kastritsa  [between 24 and 15 k.a. BP]). During the European Magdalenian, eyed needles are found in large quantities both in France and Middle Europe. While the use of eyed bone needles continued until the 17thcentury in the old and new world, first copper needles were produced in Armenia at 5 k.a. BC. Bronze needles came in common use in the Near East and Europe at 2,5 k.a. BC. The oldest iron needle known was found in what is now Germany, and dates back to the 3rd century BC. Needles made of steel were the halmark of the industrial revolution.

Today’s needles are manufactured from high carbon steel wire with either nickel or gold coating to make it corrosion resistant. The highest quality needles are plated with platinum and titanium alloy.




*Ewald Keymel (Wahren-Wuppertal)


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About Katzman

During my whole life I was fascinated by stone age artefacts. Not only the aesthetic qualities of these findings, but also the stories around them and the considerations arising from their discovery, are a part of my blog. Comments and contributions are allways welcome! About me: J.L. Katzman (Pseudonym). Born in Vienna. Left Austria in 1974 and did not regret. Studied Medicine and Prehistory at a German University. Member of a Medical Department at a German University. Copyright 2010-2017 by JLK. All Rights Reserved. You are welcome to use material in these posts so long as you cite the work.
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8 Responses to Eyed Bone Needle

  1. Maju says:

    Actually there are some inference on the first use of clothing based on the divergence of the human parasites clothing and hair lice, which are related but different. They seem to have diverged c. 170,000 years ago – of course with the usual uncertainty surrounding genetic age estimates, which can’t be considered anything more than educated guesses.

    See: http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/molbev/msq234 (Melissa A. Toups 2011), discussed by me at: http://forwhattheywereweare.blogspot.com.es/2011/01/clothes-lice-homo-sapiens-and.html.

    This early clothing may not have needed of needles yet however, what requires needles seems to be protection against intense cold and extreme weather, with well sewn, multilayered clothes. This, as you say does not appear to be much older than 40 Ka.

  2. Katzman says:

    Thanks for commenting. The Toups paper indeed could indicate the developement of clothing at 170 k.a.

  3. Suzanne Ubick says:

    The oldest known eyed needle is 61,000 years old, and it comes from Sidubu Cave, in South Africa. I’ll have to do some research into the climate of the period, which may have been quite different to today’s pattern of hot in summer and warm in winter. I’m thinking that needles might not have have been invented only for making tight, multilayered clothing to survive cold, but in different, warmer regions, for sewing shell and tooth beads onto clothes, or stringing them to make jewellery. This will be a fun project!

  4. Katzman says:

    I heard about this needle, but I did not know that it was eyed. Do you have a description or a photo?

  5. Mark Siegeltuch says:

    It is likely that needles were also used for tattooing. Though very painful, this method survived and is documented by anthropologists. The “thread” is sooted and leaves a trace under the skin. Tattooing and sewn clothing are clearly related and were used as signs of social identity, probably early on. The archaeological record only dimly reflects these practices because no artifacts but the needle survived, but the practices themselves did. Archaeologists generally ignore living traditions as outside of their area of expertise. The markings and designs on stone and bones that Marshack claims were lunar calendars are tattoo marks, made with a burin. Some people did it that way by walking both edges of the chisel up the flesh and then rubbing in soot. These tattooed objects are meant to represent ancestors, like churingas among the aborigines. There are numerous “clothed” stones in the Americas and most of the “geometric” designs on Paleolithic stones are garment designs. You can see the seam lines.

  6. The Kostenki-Borshchevo eyed needles are not as old as you suggest, rather dating back to the Kostenki middle chronological group between 27 000 and 32 000 BP. see Victor Chabai, 2002 : ”The chronological and Industrial Variability of the Middle to Upper Paleolithic Transition in Eastern Europe”

  7. Sveid says:


    Do you have an idee how much needles where found of the upper Paleolithic.

    Is it possible to have exact numbers ?


  8. Katzman says:

    Many thousands…………………..-

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