Tuesday 6 February 2024

A possible rope-making tool from the Late Palaeolithic of Europe.

The lives led by the Palaeolithic peoples are often difficult to understand, due to the limited number of surviving technological items, and the difficulty in understanding how these were used. Rope, twine, and string are known to have been used in the Late Palaeolithic of Europe, by impressions left on clay items, by depictions in art from the period, and by traces of fibres thought likely to have come from these materials. The manufacture of rope would require specific technology to the task, the nature of which is currently not known, either because we have not found the tools required for the task, or because we have not recognised them for what they are. 

In a paper published in the journal Science Advances on 31 January 2024, Nicholas Conard of the Department of Early Prehistory and Quaternary Ecology at the University of Tübingen and the Senckenberg Centre for Human Evolution and Paleoenvironment, and Veerle Rots of the TraceoLab at the University of Liège, propose a model for the production of rope by the early Upper Palaeolithic Aurignacian people of Europe.

Thirteen pieces of worked Mammoth ivory were discovered in a horizon dated to between 40 000 and 35 000 years before the present, during excavations at the Hohle Fels Cave in the Ach Valley of the Swabian Jura of southwestern Germany in 2015, with another two pieces in a section of collapsed material which partially derived from the same horizon. The pieces were fitted together to form a baton 20.4 cm in length, 3.6 cm wide, and 1.5 cm thick, perforated by four holes, each of which was surrounded by a spiral of six precisely carved grooves. The object was obviously carefully made, and the grooves carefully chiselled, although it shows little use-associated wear.

Ivory perforated baton from Hohle Fels Cave, southwestern Germany with four views. Convex surface second from the left, flat surface far right. Distal end up, handle down. Hildegard Jensen in Conard & Rots (2024).

The Hohle Cave was occupied on numerous occasions by both Humans and Cave Bears, both of which disturbed the floor, leading to a degree of time averaging within deposits. The exact age of the baton could not be determined, however, Conard and Rots are confident that it is no more than 40 000 years old and no less than 35 000 years old, based upon dates obtained from Human-modified bones from the same layer. Furthermore, only one of the dates from this layer was older than 36 500 years, making it very likely that the baton comes from the later part of the window. 

Hohle Fels. Perforated baton of Mammoth ivory from Aurignacian layer AH Va at the time of discovery in July 2015. Conard & Rots (2024).

Four other perforated batons have previously been described from Aurignacian deposits within the Swabian Caves. One of these appears to have been almost identical to the Hohle Cave baton, and was found at Geißenklösterle Cave, 2 km downstream of Hohle Cave in the Ash Valley, in 1984. This baton was more weathered and fragmented than the Hohle Cave example, and split into 30 fragments. It was recovered from a layer which also produced a number of Aurignacian tools, and which has been dated to between 42 500 and 37 000 years before the present.

The baton from Geissenklösterle. Conard & Rots (2024).

Another three perforated Mammoth ivory batons were found in layers which produced Aurignacian tools at Vogelherd in the Lone Valley in 1931. One of these has two perforations with spiral grooves, and was interpreted as a gorget. A second baton had a single hole, again with spiral grooves, and was interpreted as a bullroarer. A third baton had at least one hole with spiral grooves, but was broken. Exact dating is not available for this site, although there is no reason to believe that the Aurignacian tools from here came from a notably different time interval from those from other sites in the Swabian Jura.

Location of Aurignacian sites in the Swabian Jura. Conard & Rots (2024).

Perforated batons have also been recorded from a range of other Upper Palaeolithic sites across Europe, although the four-holed batons from Hohle and Geißenklösterle are distinctive, with no examples from elsewhere, and the two known specimens coming from a limited geographical range and chronological interval. Notably, these are also among the oldest known examples of perforated batons. Later examples, from the Aurignacian and Gravettian periods, before the Last Glacial Maximum, and the Magdalenian period, after the Last Glacial Maximum are found across Central Europe, and are generally single-holed and made from Reindeer antler. The majority of these have smooth holes, but some have carved grooves similar to those seen in the Swabian Batons. The nature of these batons has remained obscure, with most interpretations regarding them as ritual objects, and the grooves, where present, as being symbolic in nature. Other interpretations have suggested that they were used for straightening arrow shafts, or working leather.

Macro- and microscopic images of the ivory perforated baton from Hohle Fels and residue evidence. (A) Ivory perforated baton. (B) Plant tissue extracted from Lochstab (transmitted-light microscopy). (C) Possible tracheid extracted from Lochstab (transmitted-light microscopy). (D) to (K) Details of the grooved holes according to their position on the artifact. Images are taken on the main fragmented parts of the Lochstab before refitting. Both faces of each hole are depicted in the order as depicted in (A) (distal hole: (D) and (H), note fracture in groove on (H); left central hole: (E) and (I); right central hole: (F) and (J); proximal hole/near handle: (G) and (K)). Hildegard Jensen, Dries Cnuts, & Veerle Rots in Conard & Rots (2024).

The discovery of the Hohle baton led Conard and Rots to re-examine the Geißenklösterle baton, and the extreme similarity of these objects led then to conclude that these were more likely to be tools, which would require the maker to stick closely to a predetermined pattern, rather than ritual objects, where some artistic license might be expected. The holes appear to be intended to have something threaded through them, which led Conard and Rots to hypothesise that they might have been used to make rope or twine, with the groves being used to align fibres in some way. Twine can be made by hand, simply by twisting fibres together, so Conard and Rots decided to experiment with the making of rope, using a replica of the baton, made from bone since ivory was not readily available (an attempt was first made to replicate the baton in wood, but it was found the grooves broke off too easily). This was then replaced with a baton made from Warthog tooth ivory.

Experimental pieces in bone (top) and Warthog tooth ivory (bottom). Conard & Rots (2024).

Conard and Rots began by threading different materials through the holes of the modern baton, experimenting with Deer sinews, as well as Flax, Linum, Hemp, Cannabis, Cattail, Typha, Linden, Tilia, Willow, Salix, and Nettles, Urtica. The baton proved to be ineffective for the processing of sinew, Flax, Nettles, and Hemp, but more positive results were achieved with Cattail, Linden, and Willow. The batton proved to be particularly effective for processing Cattail, crushing the hard outer surface of the stems, which produced (edible) starch as well as usable fibres. Many modern peoples are known to make rope from Cattail, and ropes made from this material have been found in a variety of archaeological contexts (albeit later than the Aurignacian). Cattail can also be used for food, cordage, and basketry. Pollen has not been studied in any Aurignacian layers within the Swabian Jura, but Cattail pollen is known from Gravettian layers at Hohle Fels, and the climate during thr Aurignacian would have been favourable for this Plant. Willow is known as charcoal from the Aurignacian layers at Hohle Fels.

Use of the ivory artefact for Tilia (left) and for Typha (right). Conard & Rots (2024).

The baton could be used to manufacture thin ropes, but was not essential, as these are not difficult to make by hand. However, experimentation with the use of all four holes on the baton found that it was particularly useful for making thicker, stronger ropes from two to four strands. By maintaining a regular thickness of each strand, it enabled the manufacture of long lengths of rope. The grooves help to break down and orient leaves while maintaining torsion, the tool can then be run over the strands at a regular speed, causing them to combine automatically into a rope as a result of the twisting tension. One person is needed to hold the tool and one to hold each strand, so three to five people are needed to make a rope with two to four strands, with the number of holes used determining the number of strands and therefore the thickness of the rope. The experiments found that it was possible to produce 5 m of strong, supple rope in 10 minutes.

Pulling the Typha through the holes and rotating fibres into strands by hand. Conard & Rots (2024).

Conard and Rots have demonstrated that the four-holed Aurignacian artefacts from Hohle Fels and Geißenklösterle are efficient rope-making tools, providing an answer to the question of how rope was produced in the European Upper Palaeolithic. Rope and twine are used for a wide variety of purposes by modern Humans, and all modern hunter-gatherer populations are known to use rope and twine for a wide variety of purposes, making it unlikely that the Aurignacian culture could have managed without it. The methodology demonstrated by Conard and Rots requires multiple people to co-operate on the manufacture of rope, and is therefore also indicative of a culture in which people had a well-developed sense of community, further underlining how this ability to co-operate would have been advantageous .

The manufacture of a three-stranded rope from Typha. Conard & Rots (2024).

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