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A 1920 painting by Charles R. Knight depicting early humans engaging in cave painting while dressed in animal skins (Wikimedia Commons)

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Here’s a note to those who smugly believe that our species is superior to animals: Without their skins and furs, we would probably never have survived the ice ages that hit earth since homo sapiens appeared over 300,000 years ago. Possibly proving this point is a recent archaeological discovery in a cave in Morocco that dates the oldest recorded human-made tools for making leather and fur garments to the onset of an ice age around 120,000 years ago.

The discovery was made by a team of archaeologists led by Emily Hallett of Germany’s Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History during excavations in Contrebandiers Cave on the Atlantic coastline of Morocco. The researchers unearthed 62 prehistoric bone tools, dated 120,000 to 90,000 years ago, that were used to process animal skins. The discovery marks the earliest known evidence of the production of animal-based clothing, the scientists wrote in a study published in the journal iScience on September 16.

Samples of bones that were used for processing animal skin for clothing (courtesy iScience)

Hallett initially set out to research the diet of Pleistocene humans before stumbling on remains of sand foxes, golden jackals, and wildcats that showed cut marks like those still created in modern skinning techniques. Later, her team also found an array of bone tools, many with a broad rounded end to avoid damaging the skin.

“They look like the tools that people still use today to process hides for leather and fur,” Hallett told the Smithsonian Magazine, adding that similar tools have been found in much younger archaeological sites.

According to the study, the specialized instruments found in the cave suggest that humans first started using more crude versions of such tools thousands of years earlier. And though attributed to the need for body coverings during an ice age, the instruments also correspond with the advent of personal adornments, like shell beads, suggesting that humans wore animal fur not just for survival but also for style.

 Fox bones showing marks consistent with skinning (courtesy iScience)

But again, we’re not that special. According to the study, our extinct relatives, the Neanderthals, likely made clothing before us using similar bone tools about 15,000 to 70,000 years ago. Notwithstanding, this is a landmark discovery, according to Ian Gilligan, an archaeologist at the University of Sydney in Australia and author of Climate, Clothing and Agriculture in Prehistory.

“This new study really pushes back the first good archaeological evidence for the manufacture of clothing, and it’s coinciding nicely with the beginning of the last Ice Age about 120,000 years ago, so I think that’s really significant,” Gilligan told Smithsonian Magazine. “It’s precisely at the time when you’d expect to see the first clothing for protection from cold in context of the glacial cycles.”

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Hakim Bishara

Hakim Bishara is a staff writer for Hyperallergic. He is also a co-director at Soloway Gallery, an artist-run space in Brooklyn. Bishara is a recipient of the 2019 Andy Warhol Foundation and Creative Capital...

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