Israeli archaeologists have discovered the earliest evidence of cotton in the ancient Near East during excavations at Tel Tsaf, a 7,000-year-old town in the Jordan Valley, the Times of Israel has reported.
- The cotton fibres, which predate the evidence found so far by several hundred years, probably arrived at Tel Tsaf from the Indus Valley region in present-day Pakistan.
- Tel Tsaf, located near Kibbutz Tirat Tzvi, flourished during the transition period between the small agricultural societies and the large urban cities of Israel.
- The settlement at Tel Tsaf, near the Jordan River and the modern state of Jordan, dates to circa 5200-4700 BCE.
- Tel Tsaf is one of the only known communities in the region from the Chalcolithic era, a period of transition from agricultural societies living in tiny communities to those building larger cities.
- The newly uncovered microscopic remains of cotton fibres join an array of other preserved prehistoric organic materials found at the site.
The Researchers: Prof Danny Rosenberg of the Zinman Institute of Archaeology at the University of Haifa worked with researchers from the United States and Germany to collect sediments scraped from vessels, tools, and other points inside the ancient city and examined those sediments under high-powered microscopes to identify the remains of fibres.
- Textiles made from organic materials break down with time, so few examples are available for archaeologists to study. However, even after a textile has disintegrated with time, the remains of the fibres may still be present in the surrounding sediment.
- New technologies are offering archaeologists unprecedented ways to study the microscopic amounts of organic remains, including understanding the remains in such detail as to determine whether or not the fibres were woven.
- Previously, historians had believed fabrics in this region in the prehistoric time periods were mostly made from other plant matter such as flax and linen, and, thousands of years later, products from animals including hair or wool. Since cotton was not native to this area, it was a surprise for researchers and points to Tel Tsaf’s importance as a global trade hub.
- The discovery of cotton fibre remains at Tel Tsaf is the oldest evidence of the use of cotton in the Near East.
- The cotton is likely to have come from the Indus region, now modern-day Pakistan, which was the only area of the world that had started to domesticate cotton during this period.
- So far, according to Prof Rosenberg, it’s their best hypothesis given that the only other place to develop cotton in the ancient world was in Africa — and not until thousands of years later.
What They Said:
Textiles are so imperative to our life. In prehistoric time, [textiles] were involved in other things, not just clothing, but also hunting and fishing… It’s something larger than just, ‘Hey, these are the clothes they used to wear.’ It involves more of the economic practices of prehistoric people.
— Prof Danny Rosenberg
Zinman Institute of Archaeology
University of Haifa