How Rope Was Made 40,000 Years Ago

A tool made of mammoth ivory made the task easier for early humans.

German and Belgian researchers investigating a puzzling piece of mammoth ivory have discovered how early humans made ropes 40,000 years ago.

Unearthed last year at the Hohle Fels Cave in southwestern Germany by a team led by Nicholas Conard from the University of Tübingen, the carefully carved 8-inches-long ivory piece features four holes, each measuring 0.27-0.35 inches in diameter.

The artifact dates to when modern humans first arrived in Europe about 40,000 years ago. It was initially believed to be a decorated artwork or a musical instrument.

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But experimental research and testing by researchers at the University of Liège in Belgium, revealed the mammoth ivory piece was a tool for making rope out of plant fibers available near Hohle Fels.

"This tool answers the question of how rope was made in the Paleolithic," Veerle Rots, a paleontologist at the University of Liège, said. "It's a question that has puzzled scientists for decades," she added.

Although rope was a key component in the technology of hunters and gatherers, almost nothing is known about string, rope and textiles from the Paleolithic.

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The well preserved ivory artifact caught the researchers's attention because of its four holes -- all lined with deep and precisely cut spiral incisions.

Conard, Rots and colleagues, who have detailed their findings in the journal Archäologische Ausgrabungen Baden-Württemberg, found that those features made it possible to produce ropes.

As reeds were pulled through the holes, they were then twisted into ropes thanks to the spiral cuts. When compared to reeds simply twisted by hands, the tool produced stronger and more easily made ropes.

The rope-making tool is now on display at the Urgeschichtliches Museum in Blaubeuren, Germany.

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