This handy thing for making rope is 35,000 years old

This handy thing for making rope is 35,000 years old

In the Hohle Fels, a cave in southwestern Germany, a flat mammoth ivory object measuring 20 by 3 cm with four holes in it was found, which was almost certainly used to make thick ropes at least 35,000 years ago. lived during that period Homo sapiens in the cave.

The rope-making function is evident from plant remains and wear marks in the holes, from the twisted grooves in the holes and from experiments with a replica by researchers Nicholas Conard (University of Tübingen) and Veerle Rots (University of Liège).

It turned out that it takes three to five people to make a rope with four strands, but then you could also make five meters of strong and flexible cattail rope in ten minutes (Typha) manufacture, the aquatic plant with the well-known ‘cigar plumes’. The long cattail leaves appeared to work best, although the use of willow and lime bark also produced reasonable rope, Conard and Rots write this week in Science Advances. Nettles or hemp do not work. Even today, cattail rope is a fairly common product, especially for wickerwork.

Experiment to make rope, with a replica of the found object.
Image Nicholas J. Conard and Veerle Rots

Rope with four strands

Small ropes can be made by hand, but the four holes in the ivory plate from the Hohle Fels proved to be a particularly useful way to make rope with four strands. Previously made thinner ropes are passed through the holes and twisted together. The find is an important addition to the still limited knowledge about the use of rope in prehistory.

No one doubts that rope in all thicknesses and shapes must have played an important role for prehistoric people, as it still does for modern hunter-gatherers, campers and survival enthusiasts. But only in very exceptional cases are rope remains preserved. The oldest preserved (minimal) rope remains are from the time of the Neanderthals, in southern France, between 50,000 and 40,000 years old. Later, around 27,000 years ago, rope impressions on clay have been found in the Czech Republic, and female statues from the same period depict ornaments and clothing clearly woven from rope. Special are the rock paintings from eastern Spain that are difficult to date (probably 12,000-7,000 years ago) depicting people with rope ladders collecting honey from high-hanging bee nests.

The object from the German cave viewed from four angles.
Photo Haley Riley

Considered an ‘art object’

The one and a half centimeter thick object from the Hohle Fels is taken by the researchers Lochstab called, hole rod. It belongs to a category of Ice Age objects from the period 40,000 to 20,000 years ago that has been found since the nineteenth and often ‘bâton de commandement‘ (commander’s staff) is mentioned, a term from 1866.

A clear purpose was never found for it. Decades ago, a strong position was made on the Lochstab A similar object was found in a neighboring cave, which at the time was considered an ‘art object’. It is sometimes suspected, following the famous French archaeologist A. Leroi-Gourhan, that such a staff with one or more holes could have been used to straighten spears or arrows, but that is only one of 38 available and never proven hypotheses, so wrote the French archaeologist André Rigaud in an overview in 2001.

He already suspected that one of the types of ‘bâtons’ could have been used to make rope, but in a different way than Rots and Conard have now reconstructed. He used the bâton (with a different shape than the one from the Hohle Fels) to make thinner strings.