Saturday, January 14, 2017

8,500-year-old Evidence of Silk Production Weaves a New History of the Luxurious Fabric

Ancient Origins

Researchers have isolated degraded silk proteins in the soil of Chinese tombs that date back about 8,500 years—the oldest evidence of manmade silk by far. They found the tiny molecular proteins at the Jiahu archaeological site, which is rich with artifacts that point to some of the first signs of civilization.

The researchers, who published their findings in the journal PLOS one, say they found rough weaving tools and bone needles in the 8,500-year-old tombs, all of which indicate the people who lived at Jiahu may have had basic weaving and sewing skills.

The three tombs from which researchers took soil to find silk proteins. ( Yuxuan Gong et al .)

“This finding may advance the study of the history of silk, and the civilization of the Neolithic Age,” wrote the authors. “The invention of silk was significant not only to ancient China; but to all of Eurasia.”

The Jiahu archaeological site was home to people from about 9000 to 7000 BC. It was named after a nearby modern village.

Silk was such a desirable product that a great trade route across Eurasia in ancient times was called the Silk Road. It comprised several routes from east in China as far west as ancient Greece and Rome. Silk, of course, was not the only product carried over the Silk Road.

This map shows the land route of the Silk Road in red and sea routes in blue. ( Public Domain )

The authors wrote that the first known clothing, dating back 70,000 years, was from animal skins. Then, about 30,000 years ago people were using flax fibers to make textiles. Scholars thought silk was made much more recently, about 5,000 years back.

Until now, that is.

The scientists, led by Yuxuan Gong of the University of Science and Technology of China, came up with a system of identifying evidence of degraded silk from about 3,000 years ago in the soil. They devised a way to distinguish modern silk fibers from archaeological silk remnants. This latest article in the December 12 issue of PLOS One reports on their newest research using mass spectrometry to identify biomolecular evidence of silk protein in the soils of three tombs that date back to the New Stone Age, 8,500 years ago.

The weaving tools and bone needles found in the tombs, indicate the silk from 8,500 years ago was sewn or woven into clothing. Legends say the area of Jiahu was where silk production first began.

13th century depiction of people weaving silk by Liang Kai. ( Public Domain )

Jiahu, which is in Henan Province, is a site rich with evidence of civilization, as the authors report:

“The site is famous for the discovery of the earliest playable musical instrument (bone flutes), the earliest mixed fermented beverage of rice, honey and fruit, the earliest domesticated rice in northern China, and possibly the earliest Chinese pictographic writing. The excavated biological remains, including pollen, phytoliths and soil micromorphology, indicate that Jiahu’s warm and humid climate not only favoured the growth of mulberry trees, which feed the silkworm, but also enabled Jiahu inhabitants to settle and develop agriculture .”

A Neolithic bone flute that was discovered in Jiahu, China. ( CC BY SA 2.0 )

There is an article on Natural History Magazine online by researchers who excavated the site of Jiahu in the 1980s about the artifacts, health, diet and music of the village’s ancient residents. The article also deals with Penn State archaeologist Patrick McGovern’s efforts to recreate ancient alcoholic beverages at Jiahu, which researchers found in abundance on pottery at the site.

Jiahu pottery. (

Dr. McGovern reasoned that many of the jars and vases at Jiahu were used to ferment and store beer or wine. He speculated they made alcoholic beverages not just for intoxication but also because alcohol kills germs. They placed beer or wine along with other gifts, including flutes made from bones, into the tombs of many of the dead.

 Jiahu villagers also grew short-grain japonica rice and hunted, fished, and gathered to supply a varied diet. Evidence shows they took “carp, crane, deer, hare, turtle, and other animals. They also collected a broad variety of wild herbs, wild vegetables such as acorns, water chestnuts, and broad beans, and possibly wild rice. And they possessed domesticated dogs and pigs.”

Bone arrowheads were found at Jiahu, but the people there were not just hunters, they were also among the earliest farmers in that part of the world. (CC BY SA 3.0)

Regarding the current find, the PLOS One abstract says: “This finding may advance the study of the history of silk, and the civilization of the Neolithic Age.” The authors intend to continue investigating evidence of early silk production at Jiahu and other sites.

Top image: People preparing silk in old China. Source: Public Domain

By Mark Miller

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