Cat Fur Was in Fashion for Over 100,000 Years, Archaeologists Deduce

Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
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An African wildcat
An African wildcat on a treeCredit: Bernard DUPONT
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster

That image of prehistoric people garbed in animal pelts is perfectly accurate, it seems, based on the discovery of tools apparently used to make leather 90,000 to 120,000 years ago in Morocco.

What’s more, leopard or at least wildcat was always a fashion statement, it seems. So was the look of the sand fox and golden jackal, though back then they were likely used for more than stoles. We can’t know this for sure because the ancient clothing is long gone, if there ever was any.

What archaeologists found while excavating Contrebandiers Cave on Morocco’s Atlantic coast – 10 years ago mind you – is the remains of animals that were apparently killed solely for their pelts, and the special tools used to skin them and process their fur.

This is what the team calls “proxy evidence” for the manufacture of clothing, and it’s the earliest type ever found.

More than 60 tools fashioned out of bone and one made of the tooth of a whale or dolphin, found among 12,000 bone fragments, were discovered in that cave. Most of these fragile utensils seem to have been used to carefully skin animals, then process the skins for fur and leather, report Emily Hallett of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History and colleagues in the journal iScience. (The i stands for “inclusive.”)

The whale tooth, on the other hand, seems to have been used as a pressure flaker: a tool for shaping stone tools, the team explains.

Among other prehistoric implements for clothing manufacture are early needles, one about 60,000 years old found in South Africa’s Sibudu Cave, while another some 50,000 years old was found in Denisova Cave in Siberia – that one may have been made by Denisovans and/or Neanderthals.

But the skinning tools now reported from Morocco are more than double that age.

Excavating Contrebandiers Cave, where tools made of bone dating to 120,000-90,000 years were found Credit: CONTREBANDIERS PROJECT / REUTERS
Use-wear analysis remains to be done but the archaeologists believe tools like this were used to prepare peltsCredit: JACOPO NICCOLO CCERASONI / REUTE

At the root of our species

Though humans have never hesitated to eat carnivores, ever, and to this day dogs and cats are consumed in some areas, the eternally voguish wildcats and canines caught at Contrebandiers were apparently hunted for their fur alone.

The marks on their bones suggest modern fur-removal techniques. But there are no marks of de-fleshing for consumption, the archaeologists explain at quite some length. Meanwhile, the remains of herbivores, bovids specifically, at Contrebandiers indicate that they were butchered for eating.

Why did prehistoric peoples living by the sea in Morocco – the cave is a quarter kilometer (273 yards) from the ocean today – between 90,000 and 120,000 years ago need clothing? And who were they?

Contrebandiers Cave was clearly occupied from about 120,000 years ago, and, the archaeologists found, the dwellers hunted 67 different types of animals for food and, we now realize, their pelts.

One possible lesson from the cave is appreciation of the versatility humans evinced in toolmaking and use. “This versatility appears to be at the root of our species, and not a characteristic that emerged after H. sapiens expanded their range into Eurasia,” they write in iScience.

Sand foxCredit: HelmutBoehm

It bears noting that tools made of bone, so easily pulverized in contrast to hardy flint, date back at least 1.5 million years in Africa, where the technology is believed to have arisen. (Knapping a bone just isn’t like whacking at a rock to shape it.)

But the practice may have been rare, or bone tools weren’t preserved while stone ones were. Yet all in all there are a lot of examples, albeit relatively isolated ones, of prehistoric bone-tool manufacture around Africa, including three bone tools found in the famed Broken Hill Cave in Zambia, which may be anywhere from 130,000 to 300,000 years old. Meanwhile, Blombos Cave in South Africa was found to have 28 bone tools, classified as "awls" and "points" and dated to about 71,000 years ago.

That said, the team suggests that actually, in northern Africa, there was a culture involving bone tools between the relevant times – 90,000 to 120,000 years ago. At El Mnasra in Morocco, bone tools were found decades ago and recently dated to around 100,000 years ago.

So far it has seemed that using bones as a raw material for tools really took off in Eurasia about 48,000 years ago and in Africa about 44,000 years ago. But now, the team suggests, “Bone tools appear to be a pan-African phenomenon in the Middle Stone Age well before they appear at similar levels of abundance in Europe.”

A jackal on one’s junk

Some schools of thought suggest that the bones of hunted herbivores were fashioned into tools in prehistory in part to deliberately use the whole animal, in a mark of respect for its sacrifice. That must remain in the realm of speculation.

That said, given the degree of specialization of the “bone tool material culture” at Contrebandiers, earlier examples are likely to be found – which would indicate that people had been skinning cats, jackals and foxes for longer than 90,000 to 120,000 years ago.

Golden jackalCredit:

Meanwhile, among the 62 bone tools found in Contrebandiers Cave were spatulate tools made of rib bones, which may have been used in hide preparation. Note that the team has yet to perform residue analysis on the tools, which might help reveal what animals the utensils were used on specifically. Nor have the researchers yet performed experiments testing their theses using similar tools and hides.

How do we know what spatulate tools were used for, then? The scientists point to a treatise published in 1796, “Travels into the interior parts of Africa, by the way of the Cape of Good Hope.” The author, the explorer Francois Le Vaillant, described the Khoe-Khoe people in South Africa using spatulate-shaped sheep ribs as “a kind of chisel” to prepare hides for clothing.

“Spatulate-shaped tools are ideal for scraping and thus removing internal connective tissues from leathers and pelts during the hide or fur-working process, as they do not pierce the skin or pelt,” the team explains. Now we know.

What we don’t know is why people were wearing catskin and jackal fur and so on. No bone art was found in the cave, the researchers add.

The options are many and myriad. Symbolism? Modesty? Status? Warmth? Coolth? Taking on the spirit of the fierce, proud carnivore? Tribalism – this is my wildcat-fur tribe, you are the howling jackal people?

We have no idea where the notion began to wear animal pelts, or where they were placed – for instance, on the head or covering the genitals. We do not know when weaving began, but it was presumably a lot later; the earliest known textiles date to some 12,000 to 13,000 years ago, though the cord necessary to make them dates to tens of thousands of years earlier. 

But the team notes that theoretically, a wardrobe may have helped humans, not to mention other hominins, expand to new niches. Of course they wouldn’t necessarily have known that they would need a coat to advance into Siberia, but advance they did. Which indicates they may have already been decked out in the finest furs.

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