New research suggests Neolithic people at the ancient city of Çatalhöyük used a surprising source of fibres to make clothing: trees.
Cloth fragments found at Çatalhöyük were made from the bast fibres of oak trees, according to research published in the journal Antiquity. The authors of the new paper analysed some of the oldest known woven fabrics in the world, in a finding that speaks to an unappreciated material used during the Stone Age.
The paper subsequently settles a longstanding debate about whether linen or wool was used to make the Çatalhöyük fabrics, as the research found them to be made from neither material. Lise Bender Jørgensen from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology is the first author of the study.
Çatalhöyük (pronounced cha-tal-ho-yook) is one of my favourite archaeological sites in the world. Appearing some 9,000 years ago in what is now Turkey, it’s among the world’s most ancient settlements. At its peak, the Stone Age city hosted somewhere between 3,500 and 8,000 people, and its timing at the early Neolithic (the last ice age had just barely ended) blurs the boundary between hunter-gatherer culture and the emergence of farming communities. What’s more, Çatalhöyük, despite its ancientness (if that’s a word), experienced many modern problems, such as overcrowding, sanitation issues, and interpersonal violence.
Archaeologists have explored 18 distinctive layers of sediment since excavations began at Çatalhöyük in the 1950s. Artifacts like baskets, thin ropes, mats, and textiles are testament to the sophistication of Çatalhöyük’s inhabitants, some of whom wore human teeth as jewellery. The city petered out around 7,950 years ago, for reasons that aren’t entirely clear.
Some of those aforementioned textiles were uncovered in the 1960s. A debate immediately emerged as to whether they were linen (fibres made from flax plants) or wool (fibres sourced from sheep and lamb). The late British archaeologist James Mellaart made the case for wool, pointing to the remains of ram and sheep recovered at the site (as an aside, Mellaart was later accused of selling artifacts on the black market, and it was learned after his death that he had fabricated evidence — though not about these textiles). Research done in the 1980s would go on to claim that the fibres were made from flax, furthering the debate.
Digs at Çatalhöyük have been ongoing for the past several decades, including excavations led by Ian Hodder. The Stanford University archaeologist helped to uncover more evidence of textiles at the site, which were found to be between 8,500 and 8,700 years old. The ensuing investigation into these fabrics included Bender Jørgensen and Antoinette Rast-Eicher from the University of Bern, the latter an expert in identifying the source of fabric fibres. Using a scanning electron microscope, the researchers found evidence showing that the fibres were made from oak bast and that the bast was sourced locally.
“These findings shed new light on early textile production in the Neolithic, suggesting that tree bast played a more significant role than previously recognised,” the scientists wrote in their paper.
Bast fibres sit between the layer of bark and wood in trees, and are commonly sourced from willow and linden trees, in addition to oak. Importantly, timber from oak was used in the construction of some Çatalhöyük dwellings, which shows these people were no stranger to the tree.
“In the past, researchers largely neglected the possibility that the fabric fibres could be anything other than wool or linen, but lately another material has received more attention,” Bender Jørgensen told Norwegian SciTech News, which reports on research from the NTNU. “Bast fibres were used for thousands of years to make rope, thread, and in turn also yarn and cloth.”
This finding jibes with other evidence — or rather, the lack of evidence, namely the near absence of flax seeds at Çatalhöyük, according to the paper. These Stone Age people, it would appear, didn’t cultivate flax, nor did they import flax from elsewhere. So the idea that linens were used in Çatalhöyük some 8,000 years ago simply doesn’t add up.
I’m often astounded at the resourcefulness and creativity shown by prehistoric humans, and this latest paper is further proof of that. That clothing could actually be made from an oak tree blows by mind, and it’s a reminder that we all stand on the shoulders of our ancestors.