Oldest Flax? Not So Fast: Prehistoric Turkish Textile Was Made of Oak Fiber

New analysis shows textile made 8,500 years ago in the Neolithic town of Çatalhöyük wasn’t made of imported flax but the inner bark of local oak trees

Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
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Tabby-woven fragment of textile made of oak bast, found at Çatalhöyük.
Tabby-woven fragment of textile made of oak bast, found at Çatalhöyük.Credit: Antoinette Rast-Eicher
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster

Woven textiles surviving from the dawn of civilization are rare – and, it turns out, sometimes controversial. Among the oldest known textiles are fragments found at the Neolithic site of Çatalhöyük in central Turkey. Now a report in Antiquity argues that in contrast to the initial assertion that they were made of flax imported from somewhere else, the textiles had been woven from the bast of local oak trees.

Resorting to the dictionary reveals that bast is a fibrous layer beneath the external bark. To this day, people use bast fiber for weaving baskets and textiles.

The revelation that the textile was made of oak bast resolves the mystery of why no flax seeds were found at Çatalhöyük, explain Antoinette Rast-Eicher of the University of Bern, Switzerland, with Sabine Karg of the Free University of Berlin and Lise Bender Jørgensen of the Norwegian University of Science and Technology. It also renders moot the theory that the ancient Çatalhöyükians had imported flax fiber from afar.

It also fits with previous studies showing that bast from lime, oak and willow trees was widely used in prehistoric Europe to make cord.

Grass fibers used in the stitching of coiled basketry, found at Çatalhöyük.Credit: Antoinette Rast-Eicher

Neolithic textiles in general were made by twining, and later plain or tabby weaving threads. The threads at Çatalhöyük seem to have been manufactured by splicing, as opposed to retting and spinning.

“Strips of fibers were joined end to end, with the ends overlapping; these strips were then rolled together by hand to produce a yarn, and two such yarns were plied together,” Rast-Eicher and the team explain – techniques that they believe arose from the early methods to produce string from bast.

Here is a video on how to make tabby weave. It requires a loom.

The article also clarifies the Çatalhöyük textiles’ age: about 8,700 to 8,500 years old. The 17 fragments of woven and twined textiles and 14 threads or strings are among the oldest in the Near East or Europe, though they are far from the oldest known.

Beyond fig leaves

We cannot know how far back weaving per se goes. It has even been postulated that Neanderthals, let alone early modern humans, may have been making clothing (rather than just wrapping themselves in pelts), based on the discovery that they could make three-ply cord 52,000 to 41,000 years ago. The ability to twist fiber into cord is a prerequisite of making fabric (be it for clothing, bags, shrouds or even boats). That Neanderthal cord found in France knocked the previous record holder, string found in Ohalo, Israel, from 19,000 years ago, out of the ballpark. It would be a stretch to say the Neanderthals had discovered the fig leaf, but some of them did live in chilly climes.

A view of Çatalhöyük in Konya, TurkeyCredit: Omar Hoftun
A model of what Çatalhöyük was like 9300 years agoCredit: Wolfgang Sauber

Moving onto our species, in Moravia archaeologists found what seems to be impressions of complex textiles dating to 28,000 years ago – complex enough to suggest the technology had been invented much earlier. From much later but still jaw-dropping: archaeologists found actual rope and textile fragments in Guitarrero Cave, Peru, from 12,000 years ago; a pleated linen shirt found at Tarkhan, ancient Egypt, dating to 5,000 years ago; and a shred dyed with royal purple, no less, found in Israel from 3,000 years ago. Even tartan twilling goes back more than 3,000 years, and it wasn’t invented in Scotland but in central Asia.

Weaving was also central to basket-making. In Israel, while searching for more Dead Sea Scrolls, archaeologists discovered a large, intricately woven basket buried in a cave in Wadi Murabba’at. It is complete and looks so perfect that one wouldn’t think it old at all. But it proved to have been made about 10,500 years ago, according to the Weizmann Institute. The elaborate knotting technique shows this was no fledgling technology. In Çatalhöyük, archaeologists also found the imprints of coiled baskets made of grasses that served, among other things, to bury deceased infants. Signals of wear suggest the baskets were repurposed from general usage. Sometimes adults were buried wrapped in the reed mats.

Apropos Israel’s Wadi Murabba’at, in a different cave, archaeologists found a comb (for weaving, not hair) that dated to 11,000 years ago, according to carbon dating. The string binding together the wooden teeth of the comb had been thought to have been made of flax. After being sent a bit of it, Rast-Eicher suspects it isn’t: it also might be tree bast.

Dr. Naama Sukenik of the Israel Antiquities Authority said she has faith in the comb’s original characterization by Tamar Schick.

“Very early strings and textiles have to be analyzed carefully,” Rast-Eicher sums up. “In many cases it is difficult, as bast fibers like flax or tree bast look very similar. Flax, and especially domesticated flax, stands for early farming,” she adds – hence the “competition” to find the first flax. To find flax as early as 9,500 years or 8,500 years ago would have been a real coup, she adds.

Mats but no doors

The Neolithic site of Çatalhöyük actually consists of two areas: the eastern village, which arose about 9,500 years ago, and the later Chalcolithic site of Çatalhöyük West, dating to almost 7,000 years ago. A river runs between them.

It has even been surmised that in Çatalhöyük – one of the world’s earliest towns, with possibly as many as 8,500 people in its heyday – the folk were not only farming crops and husbanding livestock, but also assaulting one another.

Wall art in Catalhoyuk: Neolithic hunters attacking an aurochsCredit: Omar Hoftun

The homes were built close together, in proto-row houses that were accessed through a hole in the roof. They had no doors, insofar as can be ascertained. And those densely packed homes had mats on their floors, a discovery made in 1963. But however pleasing the mat rendered the floor underfoot, the crowding was likely stressful for peoples who had so recently descended from footloose hunter-gatherers, as one may infer from the fact that 25 of 93 skulls found at Çatalhöyük were fractured in life.

Once dead, the bodies were bound with cord into a tightly flexed position typical of many Neolithic burials, archaeologists say. Some were then wrapped in shrouds, especially the babies, the archaeologists write, or mats.

Apropos of the dead, among the surviving wall paintings at Çatalhöyük, archaeologists report in separate research on pictures of animals, hunting scenes – and birds devouring headless bodies. One possibility is this reflects their treatment of the dead. Among the finds in Çatalhöyük was a plastered skull – an artifact more familiar from the Neolithic Levant, on the other side of the Mediterranean. This skull was found cradled in the arms of an old woman. It is hard to know what to make of the removal, plastering and decoration of skulls some 9,500 years after the event, but one theory is these are the whispers of an ancestor cult that may have spread throughout the Middle East, and reached Anatolia as well – and perhaps contributed to the rise of the first complex societies in the region, which evidently doesn’t mean they all got along.

A burial found in CatalhoyukCredit: Steve Estvanik / Shutterstock

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