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Palaeolithic perishables made permanent.


Reconstructions of prehistoric lifeways have always been based on insights gained from the study of durable materials made of stone, ivory, antler and bone. This is especially true as one moves back in time and considers the Pleistocene archaeological record. The resulting scenarios stand in stark contrast to the ethnographic and ethnohistorical evidence which shows that perishable organic technologies employing wood and plant materials form the vast bulk of hunter-gatherer material culture, even in arctic and subarctic environments (e.g. Damas 1984; Helm 1981). Such a dramatic inversion between what has been observed among hunter-gatherers in historic times and reconstructed from prehistoric times suggests either a major discordance between what people did in the remote and recent pasts, or serious problems with reconstructions of past lifeways.

Archaeologists working with materials recovered from environmental contexts exhibiting optimal preservation have amply documented the lack of discordance between the material culture of archaeological hunter-gatherer cultures and those of ethnographic modernity. Taylor (1966: 73), for example, notes that in most dry caves, fibre artefacts outnumber those made of stone by a factor of 20. Croes (1997: 536) reports that wet sites often yield inventories where more than 95% of prehistoric material culture are made of wood and fibre. Collins' (1937) previous research supports these findings on sites in the Alaskan permafrost. These observations not only confirm Clarke's (1968) hypothesis that what was preserved in the Old World archaeological record constituted only c. 15% of what was actually used, but also demonstrates that this proportion can be even lower.

The observed disparity between prevailing reconstructions and actual ethnographic practice clearly results from a number of factors, among which preservational bias, inadequate recovery techniques and basic unfamiliarity with perishable technology figure most prominently. That evidence of perishable technologies can escape devastating post-depositional factors was amply demonstrated in recent excavations at the late Pleistocene wet sites of Ohalo II in Israel (Nadel et al. 1994) and Monte Verde in Chile (Dillehay 1997). The inadequacy of recovery techniques employed at most Pleistocene sites -- most notably the very infrequent use of flotation techniques as well as simple inattention to the presence of charred organics -- was dramatically demonstrated by the recovery of charred plant remains at Dolni Vestonice II (Mason et al. 1994), El Jyjo (Freeman et al. 1988) and Meadowcroft Rockshelter (Stile 1982).

Extensive research on textile impressions in fired clay from the Gravettian-age sites of Dolni Vestonice I, II and Pavlov I has documented the existence of a sophisticated and diverse textile and cordage technology in Europe by c. 28,000 BP (Adovasio et al; 1996; 1998; 1999; in press; Soffer et al. 1998; 2000a). The presence of these impressions in Upper Palaeolithic Moravia raises the question of whether weaving and basketmaking were unique to the Pavlov culture, or whether these perishable technologies were present elsewhere in Eurasia. We have already presented iconographic evidence for these technologies outside Moravia (Soffer et al. 2000b; in press). Here we report on new and direct evidence that shows that perishable, plant-fibre-based technology exists across Upper Palaeolithic Europe from the Atlantic to the Urals.

As many scholars have observed, the wealth and diversity of perishable implements, which probably existed in Upper Palaeolithic--Palaeoindian times, as well as the past failure to recognize these items, strongly biases the understanding of these economies and technologies and conceals the inventories made and used by the majority of late Pleistocene people -- namely women, children and older individuals (Adovasio 1999; Adovasio et al. in press; Adovasio & Hyland 2000; Conkey 1991; Kehoe 1990; 1991; Owen 1996; 1999; in press; Soffer et al. 2000a; 2000b; in press).

Provenience and chronology

The perishable artefact data discussed below derive from four sites (FIGURE 1): Lascaux in France, Kostenki I/1-2 and Zaraisk in Russia and Gonnersdorf in Germany. All dates noted for these sites represent uncalibrated radiocarbon years.



During the 1953 research season at Lascaux Glory (1959) discovered five cordage fragments (presumably representing a single, once complete rope) adhering to clay walls in the cave's Feline Gallery. Although not found in direct association with the famous paintings but in a nearby crevice, Glory hypothesized that the large diameter cord was used by the Upper Palaeolithic visitors of Lascaux to descend from the then-extant floor inside the cave to the bottom of their pit c. 4 m below. Recent radiocarbon dating of the Lascaux images, although problematic, places some of these visits at c. 17,000 BP (Bahn 1995; Bahn & Vertut 1989).

Kostenki I/1-2

Kostenki I is a multilayered, multicomponent, open-air habitation site located on the right bank of the Don River in Russia, c. 40 km south of the city of Voronezh. The site has been under excavation since 1879 and its Layer i has, to date, yielded two occupation complexes (Rogachev et al. 1982). The first one, well known to Western scholars through the literature, was excavated by Efimenko (1958) and contained an oval complex with a row of central hearths surrounded by semi-subterranean earth lodges and pits. The second, similar in structure and located c. 10 m southwest of Complex 1, has been under study since 1951 (Rogachev et al. 1982). Ongoing excavations of the hearths and ash deposits here have, to date, produced c. 400 fragments of low-temperature-fired and unfired clay, some of which bear impressions of twigs and branches (Praslov 1992). One fragment, discussed below, bears impressions of cordage. Radiocarbon dates for these complexes now number in excess of 50 assays. While dates range widely, from as early as c. 24,100 BP to as late as c. 18,000 BP, the dates cluster between 22,000 BP and 24,000 BP (Sinitsyn & Praslov 1997). This clustering is consistent with the dates inferred from the site's stratigraphic sequence.


The site of Zaraisk is located on the banks of the Osyotr River, in the present-day city of Zaraisk, c. 150 km southeast of Moscow, Russia. This Gravettian-age open-air site has been under excavation since 1980 and has yielded rich lithic and bone inventories found in at least two cultural layers (Amirkhanov 1997). Although research is still in progress, the extant 20 radiocarbon dates suggest that the lower layer dates to c. 22,000 BP while the overlying one dates to c. 17,000 BP (Amirkhanov 1997; Sinitsyn & Praslov 1997). The central hearth in the lower layer of Excavation 4 has produced a fragment of fired clay with textile impressions on two sides of the specimen.


This Magdalenian-age open-air site is located on the banks of the Rhine River in the northwestern end of the Neuwied Basin in Germany. It was excavated between 1968 and 1976. Bosinski, the site's excavator, interprets the site as multi-seasonal loci occupied over a number of years by different groups (Bosinski 1979; 1995). The site's single cultural layer has produced an extensive inventory of stone and bone tools, numerous faunal remains, jewellery and engraved slate plaquettes. Multiple radiocarbon determinations indicate that Gonnersdorf was occupied c. 12,800 BP (Bosinski 1995). Examination of the worked bone and antler assemblage from the site show the presence of one piece bearing a textile impression on one end. This fragment was recovered in 1968 from a paved area (Konzentration 1) which is interpreted as remains of a winter dwelling (Bosinski 1979; 1995 with references).

Analytical methods

The Gonnersdorf, Kostenki I and Zaraisk impressions were first identified both macro- and microscopically on the original specimens. Subsequently, they were impressed in modelling clay and the resulting `positive' casts were examined at the R. L. Andrews Center for Perishables Analysis, Mercyhurst College. All casts were scrutinized with a Leica Wild M-10 variable power, stereoscopic microscope with digital image acquisition and processing capabilities. The Lascaux casts were examined with a 20x hand lens at the Institut de Paleontologie Humaine (IPH), Paris, France. Measurements were taken with a Helios needle-nosed dial caliper and recorded, with pertinent analytical data, on standardized forms. Basketry and textile analysis follows Adovasio (1977) and Emery (1966); cordage analysis is after Hurley (1979) and Andrews et al. (1986). The results of these analyses are presented below by site.


Kostenki I/1-2

Five casts were examined from this site. Only one specimen, KI-2/2 (FIGURE 2), revealed cordage impressed into clay. The identified impression exhibits a clump of reeds/stems (genus and species unknown) and a piece of two-ply Z-spun, S-twist cordage, possibly employed to secure the reeds/stems. The cordage is super-imposed with reeds or stems and measures only c. 5 mm in length. The diameter is c. 0.55 mm and the angle of twist is 36 [degrees]. There are 6 twists/ cm.



The single specimen from this site (#124 Zar-98 153) bears impressions on two of its surfaces (FIGURE 3). One of the surfaces (Side A) is reddish in colour and suggests firing in an oxidation atmosphere; the other (Side B) is tan to grey in colour, suggesting firing in a reducing atmosphere. Both of the impressions are `wall' or body fragments of the same knotted net of indeterminate form. The resolution of both impressions is generally low and it is impossible to ascertain the cordage formula. The identifiable knots may include two types, weaver's and square/granny, with the weaver's knot configuration in the majority. Cord diameter ranges are 0.35-0.70 mm with an average of 0.50 mm. Angle of twist and twists per centimetre are not determinable. Mesh size is c. 1.50 mm. As shown in the schematic (see FIGURE 3g), part of the mesh is compressed while the remainder is partially expanded.



As Bahn (1985) reports, at the turn of the 20th century some French scholars, including Mascareaux, Piette and, later, the Pequarts, identified some osseous implements found at sites in the Pyrenees as weaving implements and hypothesized the existence of textiles in the Upper Palaeolithic. It was Glory (1959: 135-69) who first documented Pleistocene plant-based perishable technology when he described five fragments of rope-width cordage which he recovered from Lascaux. These five fragments range from 40 to 70 mm in length with diameters putatively (see below) ranging 7-8 mm. All are thought to be portions of the same, c. 30-cm long, original construction which itself was probably part of a much longer specimen.

Glory (1959) identified the cordage as what in Hurley's (1979) terminology would be three-ply S-spun, with a final Z-twist. Though the rope itself has not survived, our re-examination of the positive and negative cast of Specimen 3 (FIGURE 4) curated at the IPH revealed that it is a compound consturction -- namely, three-ply, S-spun, Z-twist with each ply consisting of a two-ply, Z-spun, S-twist cord. Interestingly, Glory (1959: figure 6) actually did illustrate their formulae in his published analysis. Our re-analysis also shows that this specimen has a slightly larger diameter (i.e. 9.8-12.50 mm) than indicated by Glory (1959). Its angle of twist is 55 [degrees] and there are two twists/cm.



The specimen from Gonnersdorf, #Go 58x138, is a fragment of reindeer antler whose spongy surface is impressed with 5-6 parallel lines, spaced 1.35-2.50 mm from each other, which run diagonally across the surface (FIGURE 5). Tinnes (1994) identified this piece as a basal fragment of an antler point and, following received wisdom, interpreted the lines as stigmata resulting from roughening of the surface for conjoining with another specimen.


Analysis of the parallel lines reveals that they are impressions of final S-twist cords. Unfortunately, while the final twist is clear, it is impossible to specify how many plies are present or their initial spin or twist. The diameter of the cords range 1-25-1-55 mm with an average diameter of 1.40 mm. Angle of twist is c. 31.7 [degrees] and there are five twists/cm.


Genesis and preservation

With the exception of the Lascaux specimen, the cordage and netting impressions were probably generated accidentally rather than intentionally impressed on to antler or clay. We have discussed in detail elsewhere how such impressions could have been made in clay (Adovasio et al. 1996; 1998; 1999; in press; Soffer et al. 1998; 2000a). The antler impression from Gonnersdorf probably resulted from incidental use -- possibly from the binding of the base of the point to a shaft or from conjoining of the base of the point to a shaft wrapped in cordage.

Although the identification of cordage impressions on this specimen is the first for Upper Palaeolithic osseous implements, it is not the first reporting of textile impressions on late Pleistocene bone. Sakharov (1952) reported recovering a human calvarium from a stratigraphic profile along the left bank of the Skhodnya River, near the village of Tushino, Russia. Stratigraphic dating of this calvarium, which was not subjected to radiocarbon dating, indicated a late Pleistocene age (Bader 1952). The outside surface of the calvarium was covered by impressions akin to fine netting. A study of the genesis of these impressions, undertaken by Sinel'nikov (1952), who also conducted experiments to replicate this phenomenon, concluded that humic acids were the most likely agents in the impressing of the design of the headwear that the deceased was wearing at the time of death onto his/her calvarium during the decomposition of the body. Thus, although unique to date for a securely dated Upper Palaeolithic context, the Gonnersdorf specimen is rare, but not unique, for archaeological contexts.

Raw materials

As discussed in previous publications on Upper Palaeolithic perishable industries from Moravia (Adovasio et al. 1996; 1998; 1999; in press; Soffer et al. 1998; 2000a), all of the impressions reported here appear to be made of plant fibres rather than sinew. We also noted in those works that a wide variety of plant sources were potentially available at the sites which could have been used to manufacture the products identified at Pavlov I and Dolni Vestonice I and II. These minimally include Urtica sp., Asclepias sp., Alnus sp. and Taxus sp.

Pollen profiles and wood charcoal from Kostenki, Zaraisk and Gonnersdorf also show the presence of similarly suitable taxa for perishable artefact manufacture including Urtica sp., Artemisia sp., Typha sp., Tilia sp. and Salix sp. (Amirkhanov pers. comm. 1999; Leroi-Gourhan 1978; Malyasova & Spiridonova 1992; Owen in press; Schweingruber 1978; Spiridonova 1991). While it is presently impossible to determine which taxa may have been used to produce the materials reported here, ethnographic and archaeological evidence document the widespread use of these plants for the production of cordage, cordage by-products, basketry and textiles (Soffer et al. 1998; Adovasio et al. 1999). Finally, though previous research confirmed that the original Lascaux specimens were composed of plant fibre, the taxa reported could not be identified (Lossaint 1959).

Range of items produced

The new data reported here document the use of plant products to make cordage (Gonnersdorf) and the use of cordage to produce more complex structures such as compound, multipleply rope (Lascaux), and knotted netting -- likely in the form of a bag (Zaraisk). This inventory represents but a small portion of the perishable repertoire from Moravia, where an extraordinarily varied inventory of cordage, basketry and textile products has already been identified (Soffer et al. 2000b; in press). The limited range of perishable items from Lascaux, Kostenki I, Gonnersdorf and Zaraisk most likely do not reflect the impoverishment of these technologies as one moved away from Moravia, but rather reflect the fortuitous circumstances of their preservation in Moravia. This, as noted elsewhere, is because the Gravettian age inhabitants of Moravia were heavily involved with pyrotechnology -- activities which sometime led to such consequences as burning down of houses (Soffer 2000; Soffer & Vandiver 1997; in press).


In sum, extensive documentation now exists on the use of plant fibres to make cordage in Upper Palaeolithic Moravia and to transform cordage-based technology into more complex structures including rope, nots and textiles, as well as to utilize split roods to plait baskets (Adovasio et al. 1998; 1999; in press; Soffer et al., 2000b; in press). The new evidence for the production and use of these perishable technologies reported here, together with the iconographic evidence of the depiction of woven garments on some of the Upper Palaeolithic Venus figurines from across Europe (Soffer et al. 2000b; in press), suggests the following points:

1 Plant-based fibre technologies were widely employed across Upper Palaeolithic Europe and the production of cordage and cordage by-products spanned numerous millennia of late Pleistocene time. The presence of these perishable technologies in the late Pleistocene New World indicates the ubiquity of those technologies across the globe.

2 While material evidence for these usually `invisible' technologies is rare, it is indeed present if one purposefully looks for it. This evidence can take the form of impressions on clay, bone and antler, and in fortuitous cases, such as at Badegoule, it can take the form of actual burned textiles (as opposed to textile impressions) adhering to stone tools (Cheynier 1967).

3 Examples from Gonnersdorf and Skhodnin point to the possibility of cordage and textile impressions occurring on antler and bone. This warrants re-examination of osseous implements in museum collections which have heretofore been identified as engraved or roughened out to determine whether some may exhibit the same phenomenon of impressed cordage and textiles.

4 Archaeologists working with late Pleistocene materials need to re-examine these implements because ethnographic and archaeological evidence from more recent times clearly indicate that most items of hunter-gatherer material culture are made of perishable media -- specifically, plant fibres. Simply put, late Pleistocene lifeways were far more diverse than is suggested by extant scenarios centered around men in furs knapping stone tools to kill megafauna. Late Pleistocene life, like that before and after it, was not lived by stone alone. Awareness of this fact and concerted methodological efforts are required to overcome the preservational restrictions that have blinded archaeologists to this integral element of human material culture.

5 These perishable industries are important also because, as has been repeatedly argued elsewhere (Adovasio et al. 1998; 1999; in press; Soffer et al. 2000a; 2000b; in press), they are the ones that permit us glimpses at what the invisible Palaeolithic majority -- the women, the children, and the elderly -- may have been doing. One radical, but probable, is communal net hunting (Adovasio et al. 1998; 1999; in press). Evidence for nets at Zaraisk suggests that this extended well outside of Moravia. Another, for some women, was the weaving of fine textiles, some of which may have served as Upper Palaeolithic valuables and functioned in prestige economies (Soffer et al. 2000a; 2000b; in press).

Acknowledgements. We express our gratitude to Professors D. Vialou and H. de Lumley for permitting us to examine the casts of the Lascaux rope curated at IPH in Paris. We are also greatly indebted to Dr M.D. Gvozdover for directing us to publications about the Skhodnin calvarium, to Professor Randall White for pointing us to Cheynier's publications, and to Dr Paul Bahn for pointing us to early 20th-century hypotheses about Palaeolithic textiles. We also benefited greatly from discussions with Dr Jeff Saunders and wish to thank him and the Illinois State Museum for their help with our research. The figures were produced by Steve Holland (University of Illinois) and by N.R. Wilson, S.L. Snyder and D.R. Pedler (Mercyhurst Archaeological Institute). Olga Soffer also is most grateful to Professor Gerhard Bosinski for a very productive research stay at Schloss Monrepos. Finally, the authors wish to thank D.R. Pedler for his efforts in editing and producing this work.


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Received 18 April 2000, accepted 12 June 2000, revised 26 June 2000.
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Date:Dec 1, 2000
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