Photo by: Purwo Kuncoro

Bone tools from Morocco indicate the production of clothing by 120,000 to 90,000 years ago

Carnivores were skinned for fur and bone tools were then used to prepare the furs into pelts
Image credit: Jacopo Niccolò Cerasoni, 2021

Dating from 120,000 – 90,000 years ago, the bone tools were found in association with carnivore remains that showed signs of skinning for furs and pelts.

The invention of clothing and the development of the tools needed to create it, are milestones in the story of humanity. Not only are they indicative of strides in cultural and cognitive evolution, archaeologists also believe they were essential in enabling early humans to expand their niche from Pleistocene Africa into new environments with new ecological challenges. However, as furs and other organic materials used to make clothing are unlikely to be preserved in the archaeological record, the origin of clothing is still poorly understood. A new study, supported in part by The Leakey Foundation, reports on a worked bone assemblage found near the Atlantic Coast of Morocco and provides strong evidence for the manufacture of clothing as far back as 120,000 years ago.

As part of her research with the Institute of Human Origins at Arizona State University and the ‘Lise Meitner’ Pan-African Evolution research group at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History (MPI-SHH), Dr. Emily Hallett was studying the vertebrate remains from Contrebandiers Cave deposits dating from 120,000 to 90,000 years ago. 

“This was a critical time period and location for the early members of our species,” says Hallett, “and I was primarily interested in reconstructing the diet and habitat niche of the people who used this cave.”

Entrance to Contrebandiers Cave, Morocco
Image credit: Contrebandiers Project, 2009

Among the roughly 12,000 bone fragments, Hallett found more than 60 animal bones that had been shaped by humans for use as tools. At the same time, Hallett identified a pattern of cut marks on the carnivore bones suggesting that, rather than processing them for meat, the occupants of Contrebandiers Cave were skinning them for fur.

Hallett compared the tools she identified with others in the archaeological record and found that they had the same shapes and use marks as leather working tools described by other researchers,

“The combination of carnivore bones with skinning marks and bone tools likely used for fur processing provide highly suggestive proxy evidence for the earliest clothing in the archaeological record,” says Hallett, “but given the level of specialization in this assemblage, these tools are likely part of a larger tradition with earlier examples that haven’t yet been found.”

Also hidden amongst the bone fragments was the tip of a tooth from a whale or dolphin bearing marks consistent with use as a pressure flaker (a tool used for shaping stone tools). Given the age of the find, this represents the earliest documented use of a marine mammal tooth by humans and the only verified marine mammal remain from the Pleistocene of North Africa.

“The Contrebandiers Cave bone tools demonstrate that by roughly 120,000 years ago, Homo sapiens began to intensify the use of bone to make formal tools and use them for specific tasks, including leather and fur working,” Hallett summarizes. “This versatility appears to be at the root of our species, and not a characteristic that emerged after expansions into Eurasia.”

In the future, Hallett hopes to collaborate with other researchers to identify comparable skinning patterns in the assemblages they study and gain a better understanding of the origins and diffusion of this behavior.


This story was provided by the Max Planck Institute for Human History. This research was funded in part by The Leakey Foundation.


A worked bone assemblage from 120,000-90,000 year old deposits at Contrebandiers Cave, Atlantic Coast, Morocco



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