The String Revolution

Book cover for 'Women's Work the first 20,000 years by E Wayland Barber.

I’ve bought a book. I know that’s not particularly newsworthy piece of information but it is a book discussing a subject that I’ve not really considered before.  As part of my ongoing research, delving into the early uses of textiles, I found this.

Women’s Work, The First 20,000 years was written by Elizabeth Wayland Barber in 1995 and covers the development of textiles from the earliest evidence available.  It starts from a relatively obvious position that the earliest human societies or clans, tribes, whatever, were hunter gatherers.  They had no fixed location and moved with regularity to ensure they had sufficient to eat by hunting and killing prey and by gathering plant food that occurred naturally.  These nomadic groups would have included all age groups. Women with children would be included in the group and breast feeding  each infant for two to three years would limit the frequency of childbirth. Work done by women with and for the group needed to be compatible with the demands of childcare.  The care and welfare of children, as any mother can tell you involves being with them, watching them and providing instruction as well as care and food. Work for mothers needed to be something that could be done, and importantly, be interrupted and then resumed as part of care giving. Textile arts  such as spinning, weaving and sewing provide just those tasks along with the preparation of food.

So what about string? Our current way of describing a particular era of human development is in terms of the main type archaeological finds.  We have the old and new stone age (palaeolithic and neolithic)  followed by the bronze and iron ages. This is a classification developed in the 19th century that describes the sort of discoveries being made at the time from early human civilisations.  It gives a warped view of society then with cave men wearing skins, muttering things such as ‘Ugg’ and bashing his woman on the head with a club.  Elizabeth Wayland Barber suggests that instead of stone the society might be classified as string users.

The discovery and use of string made from twisted plant fibres meant that it could be as long or as strong as needed by twisting short filaments together.  This provided new ways to save labour and improve  the odds of survival.  They had the ability to ‘tie things up, to catch, hold and carry.  From these skills come, snares and fishlines, tethers and leashes, carrying nets, handles and packages not to mention a way of binding things together to form more complex tools.’  I’ll be honest this sentence left me quite excited. I had never considered the creation or manufacture of string at all, never mind its role in human development.

Classifying a society by what we can find thousands of years’ later is only acknowledging around 5% of what was made and used by those early groups of humans. Most of the items that have endured over the millennia are things like arrowheads and spear points, archaeologists studying the Palaeolithic era have generally focused on the ways and means of that noble savage, a k a Man the Hunter, to the exclusion of other members of the tribe. Evidence for this string use is just as fascinating – more next week about Venuses and their skirts.

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