Mammoth tusk tool may have been used to make ropes 37,000 years ago


A carved piece of ivory possibly used by ancient humans to make ropes

Conard et al, Sci. Adv. 10, eadh5217 (2024)

A 37,000-year-old piece of mammoth ivory with four carved holes found in a cave in Germany was a tool for making ropes, researchers have concluded, not an artwork as previously thought.

“You can make rope with it very easily, and the rope’s very strong,” says Nicholas Conard at the University of Tübingen in Germany. “Of course, that doesn’t mean that’s the only thing it could be. But compared to saying that it’s a symbol of power or some sort of artwork, I think the rope hypothesis is a pretty good one.”

The piece of ivory was found in 2015 in the Hohle Fels cave in the Ach valley in south-west Germany. It hasn’t been dated directly to avoid damaging it, but based on where it was found it must be at least 35,000 years old, and is most likely around 37,000 years old, says Conard, and it was probably made by modern humans. Another study published today shows that modern humans were living in a part of Germany as early as 45,000 years ago.

The artefact consists of a flattened stick of ivory split from a mammoth tusk. It is around 21 centimetres long, with four holes with spiral grooves carved in a row along one end.

“To me it looked like these spirals were indicative of putting something through it,” says Conard. Sure enough, a microscopic examination revealed traces of plant fibres in the grooves. The end without holes looked like a handle, he thought.

So Conard’s colleague Veerle Rots at the University of Liège in Belgium tried using a replica to make rope from a variety of materials, including sinew from deer, flax, hemp, cattail, linden, willow and nettles. She found it worked best with cattail, also known as reedmace or bulrush.

Her team fed three or four strands of twisted cattail into the holes, which combined into a rope on the other side. Using the tool required one person for each strand, plus one to hold the tool and move it along the strands, so four or five in total.

They were able to make 5 metres of rope in around 10 minutes. Experienced ropemakers would have done much better, says Conard.

Similar ivory objects with four or two holes, or just one hole, have been found at other sites in the region. Conard thinks these were used for ropemaking as well. “I think they’re kind of high-tech tools,” he says.

It is likely that ropes were being made much further back than 37,000 years ago, he says, but for now this is the earliest evidence of ropemaking yet found. However, a 50,000-year-old piece of string has been found at a Neanderthal site in France.


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