39,000-year-old stone tools reveal prehistoric plant processing techniques

A recent study published in the open-access journal PLOS ONE sheds light on the ancient plant technology by examining stone tools. The research, led by Hermine Xhauflair from the University of the Philippines Diliman and her colleagues, reveals microscopic evidence of plant-based materials being used by prehistoric communities. These materials, such as textiles and cordages made from plant fibers, were likely extensively utilized due to their flexibility and durability. However, the preservation of plant-based artifacts in the archaeological record, particularly in tropical regions, is rare, making it difficult for modern science to uncover evidence of ancient plant technology. While the oldest known plant fiber artifacts in Southeast Asia date back around 8,000 years, this study presents indirect evidence of plant technology dating much further back.

The researchers examined stone tools found in Tabon Cave in Palawan, Philippines, which are estimated to be up to 39,000 years old. Through microscopic analysis, they identified distinctive patterns of damage on these tools, indicating their use in processing plant materials. Indigenous communities in the region continue to employ similar techniques today, using stone tools to extract fibers from plants like bamboo and palm, transforming rigid stems into flexible fibers suitable for weaving and tying. By replicating these plant processing techniques in experimental settings, the researchers confirmed that the observed pattern of microscopic damage on the stone tools aligns with the activities performed by modern communities. This finding establishes a connection between ancient stone tools and the extensive use of plant-based materials, providing valuable insights into prehistoric plant technology.

Plant fiber processing by members of the Pala’wan community from Brooke’s Point, Philippines. Credit: Xhauflair et al., PLOS ONE, 2023, (creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/)

The recent discovery of ancient fiber technology in Southeast Asia unveils the remarkable skills possessed by prehistoric communities dating back 39,000 years. This groundbreaking research not only provides evidence of early plant-based practices but also introduces a method to uncover hidden remnants of prehistoric plant technology. The implications of this study extend beyond the mere age of the findings, as further investigation promises to unveil the extent and prevalence of these techniques in ancient times. Additionally, it raises intriguing questions about the continuity of these practices, prompting exploration into whether modern-day traditions in the region stem from an unbroken lineage.

The significance of this research lies in its ability to push back the timeline of fiber technology in Southeast Asia. By establishing that the inhabitants of Tabon Cave possessed the knowledge and capability to create baskets, traps, ropes for construction, sailing vessels, hunting tools like bows, and composite objects, it sheds light on the diverse applications of their fiber-based craftsmanship. The findings highlight the ingenuity and resourcefulness of early societies in harnessing the potential of plant materials, enabling them to thrive and adapt to their environment.

Source: Public Library of Science

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