Textile production can be viewed from many perspectives: mythology, history, archaeology, linguistics, art, neurology, cognitive evolution, altered states of consciousness...What about the word, textile? Text. Symbolic language. And this could be the oldest language known today. There are symbols still in use by weavers that can be traced back to the earliest human expressions of art on stone during the Upper Paleolithic (from 50 to 10 thousand years ago).

 
The Upper Paleolithic was a 40 thousand-year renaissance for Homo sapiens. Prior to that time, there is very little evidence for artistic or symbolic expression. That is not to say that Lower and middle Paleolithic homonids were not capable of symbolic thought. There is some evidence, and more is coming to light every year, of artistic expression. But nothing compares to the incredible flourishing of the Upper Paleolithic. Suddenly there are beads, rock art, clothing, portable art, new weaponry, weaving, and evidence of ritual and ceremonial treatment of the dead. They busted out!


The use of textiles during that time is hard to trace. Obviously, cloth disintegrates quickly, but there are other signs of textile use. Evidence may include tools like eyed needles, awls, spindle whorls, netting needles, battens, shuttles, combs, and looms. It's been suggested, based on the usewear on their edges, that the ivory batons found at many sites may have been tools to tamp down rows on a loom.
   

Venus of Hohle Fels (36 kya)
  
Antique kelim with Venus and radial motifs. Look like anyone we know?
  
Ancient kelim with nested diamonds and Venus motifs
 
Mammoth tusk bracelet with repeated and nested swastika/spiral motifs  
Ancient kelim with Venus and nested diamond motifs
  
Symbols on mammoth tusk artifacts from Mezin.  
Antique kelim with pinwheel/swastika motifs  
Venus of Willendorf (22 kya)  
Although humans were likely wearing skins for clothing from 500 thousand to 100 thousand years ago, the oldest evidence for actual textile production include a possible needle and footwear made of plant fibers dating to 40 thousand years ago. Dyed flax fibers have been found in a cave in the Republic of Georgia dating to 36 thousand years ago. Another is the impresssion of basketry or weaving in ceramic vessels, clay, and figurines. Dolni Vestonice and Pavlov, in the Czech Republic both contained impressions on clay of knotted nets. These date from 32 to 29 thousand years ago. Ohalo II in Israel contained unidentified plant fibers, likely used for textiles dating to 21 thousand years ago. But the best known, and the coolest, evidence is found on the many many Venus figurines such as the 24 thousand-year old Venus of Willendorf. Some of them are wearing woven textiles! Venus figurines from western Europe wore basketry hats, belts, and a strap of cloth above the breast. Eastern European figurines had low-slung belts and occasional string skirts.
Flax fibers from Dzudzuana cave

 
Back then, the art of weaving itself may have been considered a magical activity, and may have imparted special status to the practitioners. According to Cassin (1998), "weavings made from animal hairs were initially produced for the higher purposes intended by these practices. As soon as techniques of animal fiber spinning were mastered, the mysterious physical principle that caused these hairs to align and form a continuous thread must have engendered great awe and been viewed as a sign of powerful intervention by a superior force. It was no wonder then that these first weavings, and later actual loom woven textiles would have been decorated with patterns of significance and reserved for use in shrines and cult ceremonies." The creation of the image, rather than the image itself, may have had ritual significance. At more than a few Paleolithic cave painting sites, the painting's outline was retraced several times, particularly over naturalistic depictions of animals. Cassin suggests that this indicates a group ceremony in which all members ritualistically traced over the original lines or added elements to an image that had been drawn upon the wall by an artist, perhaps a culturally important member of the group. 


Knotting, spinning, weaving, are powerful archetypes. They symbolize creation, the cycle of life, the turning of the seasons, fate, destiny, the bonds of kinship and community. These are ancient symbols that still hold meaning today.


Textiles are still valued as sacred and cultural objects and remain ceremonially important. In India weaving is considered an act of creation and worship. Weaving communities such as the Padmasalis and Devangas believe that they were descendants of the lord of creation (c.f. Rau 2012). Catholic priests have ceremonial vestments that they put on with much pomp prior to the mass.
 
 

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