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Archaeologists in Germany have uncovered some of the earliest evidence of the use of clothing, with newly discovered cut marks on a cave bear paw suggesting the prehistoric animals were skinned for their fur some 300,000 years ago.
The discovery in Schöningen, northern Germany, is exciting because – despite the depictions of cave men and women draped in furs in popular culture – very little is truly known about how early humans clothed their bodies and survived harsh winters.
Fur, leather and other organic materials typically don’t preserve beyond 100,000 years, meaning that direct evidence of prehistoric clothing is scant.
“The study is significant because we know relatively little about how humans in the deep past were protecting themselves from the elements. From this early time period, there is only a handful of sites that show evidence of bear skinning, with Schöningen providing the most complete picture,” said study author Ivo Verheijen, a doctoral student at Tübingen University in Germany.
Cave bears were large animals, about the size of a polar bear, that went extinct about 25,000 years ago. The cave bear’s coat, which has long outer hairs that form an airy protective layer and short, dense hairs that provide good insulation, was suitable for making simple clothing or bedding, according to the study published in the Journal Of Human Evolution on December 23.
The clothing probably consisted of skins that were wrapped around the body without elaborate tailoring. The eyed needles needed to sew more intricate designs didn’t emerge in the archaeological record until about 45,000 years ago.
“We found the cutmarks on elements of the hands/feet where very little meat or fat is present on the bones, which argues against the cutmarks originating from the butchering of the animal,” Verheijen explained via email.
“On the contrary, in these locations, the skin is much closer to the bones, which makes marking the bone inevitable when skinning an animal.”
The Schöningen site in Germany is most famous for the discovery of the oldest known wooden weapons – nine throwing spears, a thrusting lance and two throwing sticks – that were used to kill prey 300,000 years ago.
It’s challenging to figure out exactly when the use of clothing began.
Genetic studies of lice indicate that clothing lice diverged from their human head louse ancestors at least 83,000 years ago and possibly as early as 170,000 years ago, which suggests humans were wearing clothes before major migrations out of Africa.
Bone tools found in what’s now Morocco suggest that humans were processing animal skins 90,000 to 120,000 years ago.
“We have discovered numerous remains of other animals with cutmarks in Schöningen such as horses and aurochs, with cutmarks related to skinning. Nonetheless, the highly insulating properties of bear skins, together with the fact that the hides are more flexible when treated properly, makes bear skins much more suitable for clothing than other large herbivores,” Verheijen said
The climate at the site 300,000 years ago was “more or less similar to nowadays,” with average temperatures 2 degrees warmer to 2 degrees colder than today, Verheijen added.