Forty thousand years ago, a stone-age tool maker carved a curious tool from the mammoth tusk. Twenty centimeters long, the ivory strip has four holes, each lined with precisely cut spiral engravings.
The purpose of this strange device was unclear when it was discovered in the Hohle Fels cave in southwestern Germany several years ago. It may have been part of a musical instrument or religious object, it has been suggested. But now scientists have concluded that it is the first known tool for making the rope. And its impact would have been revolutionary.
The resulting ropes could therefore have been used to make fishing nets, traps and traps, bows and arrows, clothes and containers for carrying food. Heavy objects, such as sleds, could now be towed on ropes while the spear points could be anchored to the poles. A technological milestone had been achieved in our development.
And now British scientists believe that similar devices – found in Gough’s cave in Cheddar Gorge, Somerset – show that ropes were also made and used in Britain when the last ice age ended. Made of reindeer horns, these devices also have holes with spiral incisions and appear to have been used to manipulate the strings, for still unclear purposes. The roots of British engineering are ancient, apparently.
“Much attention has been paid to the importance of our ability to create specialized stone tools and to use fire as key elements of the prehistoric success of Homo sapiens“Said Professor Chris Stringer of the London Natural History Museum, who studied the tools of Gough’s caves.
“But in many ways, the ability to produce animal ropes and threads and plant fibers was equally revolutionary in its impact at the time. It has opened all sorts of new ways to exploit the natural world, from weaving baskets to building bows and arrows. “
The use of ropes to make bows or fire drills – used to generate friction to start fires – would also have become possible, while twine could have been used to tie curtains and sleds, Stringer added. “These sleighs could have been pulled by humans or dogs, which humans were then taming by the descendants of wolves,” he added.
Cheddar Gorge devices are thought to be around 15,000 years younger than the tools found in the Hohle Fels cave. However, their existence – in one of the most northwestern outposts in Europe, was inhabited by Homo sapiens in the early Stone Age – indicates that rope construction had already become a vital human activity.
“Mysterious objects made of reindeer horns and drilled with grooved holes had been found in Gough’s cave which, we now know, was used by prehistoric people,” said Stringer. “These devices were called batons and were initially thought to be worn by leaders as badges of rank. However, they had holes with spirals around them and we now realize that they must have been used to make or manipulate the strings. “
Similar devices have been found at many other sites once occupied by ancient humans in Europe, suggesting that the manufacture and use of the rope had spread to the Upper Paleolithic or late Stone Age. The initial discovery was made by a team led by Nicholas Conard, director of the Institute of Archaeological Sciences of the University of Tübingen. His excavations in the Hohle Fels cave began in 2008 and have revealed artifacts that have brought UNESCO World Cultural Heritage status to the site. One of the earliest musical instruments – a 35,000-year-old flute made of bones – was discovered there, as well as the first known undisputed example of figurative art, a small female figure, made of mammoth ivory and possibly worn as an amulet, and which is known as the Venus cave of Hohle Fels.
These were created by some of the early members of Homo sapiens to reach Europe after our species left Africa about 60,000 years ago. The complexity of their works of art reveals how sophisticated our ancestors had become. However, the discovery of Hohle Fels’ four-hole ivory instrument was more disconcerting until Veerle Rots, of the University of Liege in Belgium, an expert on paleolithic materials, fed the raw plant fibers through the holes in a replica in bronze of the instrument in ivory and was able to create four separate twisted threads that could be combined to form a string.
“This tool answers the question of how the rope was made in the Paleolithic era, a question that has puzzled scientists for decades,” said Rots.