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Prehistoric humans used ancient plant fiber technology to make tools 39,000 years ago

Stone tools found in the Philippines reveal evidence they were made by prehistoric humans using ancient plant fiber technology. This exciting scientific discovery was made at the University of the Philippines Diliman.

This research was led by Hermine Xhauflair and her team of experts, and published in the open-access journal PLOS ONE.

Think about the cloth we wear, the rope we use, or the baskets we carry. All these can be made from plants.

Even before our time, prehistoric communities realized the usefulness of plant fibers. Just like us, they used the toughness and flexibility of plants to make textiles and cordages.

Plant materials decompose rapidly

But there’s a problem. The evidence of their plant-based creations—things like ropes and baskets—doesn’t usually last long. This is especially true in tropical climates. So, their plant technology often becomes “invisible” to our modern scientific methods.

The oldest known artifacts made from plant fibers in Southeast Asia are about 8,000 years old. But Xhauflair and her team have found evidence of plant technology that is much, much older.

Their clues come from an unexpected place: stone tools. These tools were found in Tabon Cave, Palawan, Philippines. They date back an incredible 39,000 years! The stone tools have microscopic marks on them. These marks were made during use.

Plants are still used for the same purpose in this region

In the same region today, native communities use tools to process plants like bamboo and palm. They turn the hard stems into flexible fibers. These fibers can be used for tying things together or for weaving.

To understand the marks on the stone tools, the researchers tried out these plant processing methods themselves. They found out that this activity leaves a distinctive pattern of microscopic damage on the tools. Surprisingly, this same pattern was found on three stone tools from Tabon Cave.

This finding is a game-changer. It’s among the oldest evidence of fiber technology in Southeast Asia. It shows us the amazing technological skills of the prehistoric communities who lived there 39,000 years ago.

New method allows discovery of ancient plant technology

This research is not just about the past, but also about the future. It gives us a new method to uncover hidden signs of prehistoric plant technology.

Further study could reveal more about the age and spread of these techniques. We could even find out if the practices used in the region today come from a continuous tradition.

The researchers say, “This study pushes back in time the antiquity of fiber technology in Southeast Asia. It means that the Prehistoric groups who lived at Tabon Cave had the possibility to make baskets and traps, but also ropes that can be used to build houses, sail boats, hunt with bows and make composite objects.”

So, next time you use a rope or wear a piece of clothing, remember that humans have been using plant fibers for a very long time. The evidence is right there in the stone tools of our ancient ancestors.

More about plant technology

Plant fiber technology is a fundamental aspect of human history, spanning thousands of years and numerous cultures. It involves utilizing plant fibers, the thin, elongated cells that make up the structural framework of a plant, to create various products.

Plant fiber extraction

The first step in plant fiber technology is extracting the fibers from the plant source. Different types of plants yield different fibers.

For example, flax yields linen, cotton plants yield cotton fibers, jute plants yield jute fiber, and hemp plants yield hemp fiber. The extraction process often involves retting, which is the process of soaking plant stems in water to separate the fibers.

Textile production

Once the fibers are obtained, they can be processed and spun into threads or yarns, which are then used to create textiles. These textiles can be used to make clothing, bedding, towels, and more. The process of spinning fibers into yarn involves a tool called a spindle, which can either be hand- or machine-operated.

Cordage and rope making

Plant fibers have also been extensively used for making cordage and ropes. This technology was essential for early human societies for a variety of purposes, including construction, hunting, and fishing. For example, ropes could be used to build structures, create traps, or tie together rafts or other watercraft.


Another common use for plant fibers is in basketry. By weaving together different fibers, ancient people were able to create baskets for carrying goods, storing food, and even cooking.

Paper production

Plant fibers also played a pivotal role in the invention of paper. The earliest known paper, dating back over 2000 years, was made from plant fibers. The process involves soaking the fibers in water, then pounding or grinding them into a pulp. The pulp is then pressed and dried to form a sheet of paper.

Despite the advancement of synthetic materials, plant fibers continue to be an important resource due to their renewable nature and minimal environmental impact.

Many modern industries, such as fashion, home furnishings, and even automotive industries, are turning back to plant-based fibers as a sustainable alternative.

Archaeologists study plant fiber technology to gain insights into past civilizations. Artifacts made of plant fibers can provide valuable information about a society’s technological advancements, trade relationships, and cultural practices.

However, since plant fibers decompose over time, they’re often not well-preserved in the archaeological record. Therefore, indirect evidence, like marks on ancient tools used to process fibers, can be crucial in understanding this aspect of our human past.

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