Neanderthal yarn proves math skills in prehistoric culture.

Ars Technica looks at the world’s oldest bit of string and find it tells a profound story about Neanderthal life:

The 6.2mm (0.24 inch) long bit of thread, spun from plant fibers, is the oldest example of the material ever found. According to uranium-series dating, the thread came from a layer of sediment between 52,000 and 41,000 years old at a Neanderthal site called Abri du Maras, in France. Its nearest rival for the “oldest string ever” title is a fragment of fiber from a 19,000-year-old site in Israel.

When Kenyon College archaeologist Bruce Hardy and his colleagues looked at the thread under a microscope, the fibers turned out to be from bast: a fibrous layer of tissue just beneath the bark of a tree. These particular fibers had probably come from a conifer like pine, which would have been available nearby, according to pollen and charcoal traces from the site. An ancient craftsperson had twisted fibers together clockwise to make twisted bundles and then twisted three bundles together counterclockwise to make a three-ply cord. The cord was about 0.5mm thick (lace weight, if you’re a modern knitter or crocheter).

“The best times for harvesting bast fibers would be from early spring to early summer. Once bark is removed from the tree, beating can help separate the bast fibers from the bark,” wrote Hardy and his colleagues. “Soaking [the fibers] in water aids in their separation and can soften and improve the quality of the bast. The bast must then be separated into strands and can be twisted into cordage.”

Bundling fibers and then plying bundles into cord, Hardy and his colleagues argue, also meant that Neanderthals could think about and work with numbers, and with numerical concepts like pairs and sets, which they combined to make a structure (the thread). And as any modern fiber artist knows, most of what you can do with the fiber afterward also requires at least a basic understanding of counting, sets, and patterns. And hands-on work with numbers, like counting fibers and bundles, may have been the first step in the evolution of the cognitive ability to do more advanced, abstract math. That’s the argument advanced in 2010 by Oxford University archaeologist Lambros Malafouris.

Once they had made the thread, working with the fiber required—and probably encouraged—even more complex thinking. “As the structure becomes more complex (multiple cords twisted to form a rope, ropes interlaced to form knots), it demonstrates ‘an infinite use of finite means’ and requires a cognitive complexity similar to that required by human language,” wrote Hardy and his colleagues.

[via Ms Griffis]