An international team of researchers has found evidence that humans in what is now Georgia were using flax some 30,000 years ago.
Flax is one of the oldest domesticated crops, and has been used to make linen for thousands of years. Flax fibers are also used in rope, twine, and paper.
Harvard University archaeologist Ofer Bar-Yosef says he and his colleagues stumbled across the flax while looking through soil samples for grains of pollen, which prehistoric archaeologists use to infer climate conditions.
"So this was absolutely an accidental discovery, and of course a fascinating one," he said.
The bits of flax they found were microscopic, but some of the fibers showed signs of having been cut, knotted, and even colored using some of the 100 Caucasus plants suitable for dying fiber.
"And therefore, it's not surprising that they even dyed their own - whatever they [made] from it. Let's say they made ropes or strings, that they dyed some of them," Bar-Yosef said
The discovery dates from a time when modern humans were fanning out through the Middle East into Europe and Central Asia, displacing the Neanderthals. By 30,000 years ago, they'd already reached Dzudzuana Cave, where the flax was discovered, though Bar-Yosef says it's unclear whether flax might have been used even earlier.
"Whether it started with modern humans, I'm not sure. Maybe Neanderthals had it before. But we don't know," he said.
There's no way to know for sure how these early humans discovered that a plant could be turned into fibers that could be woven in useful ways, but Bar-Yosef says it probably was a woman who figured it out.
"Men, males, used to be the hunters, go after the animals, and so on. Females were always around the camp, but they were the ones who paid attention to the botany, to the plants all around [them]," he said.
Harvard archaeologist Ofer Bar-Yosef says the chance discovery of flax fibers at a site inhabited thousands of years before the plant was known to be used illustrates the key role that science has come to play in uncovering the past.
"When you start digging a site, you can expect anything, because there are a lot of things which were not preserved, and other that [were] preserved in such a way that you don't see them," he said. "And therefore, a chance discovery through the microscope shows you that the involvement of science in archaeology is critical."
The researchers identified more than 1300 fragments of flax fiber from various locations in the cave, sometimes in combination with bits of dyed and twisted fur from the Caucasus antelope called the tur. In a report published in the journal Science, Bar-Yosef writes that this might - might - suggest that the early humans in the Dzudzuana Cave in Georgia were processing fur and cloth.