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 newly uncovered microscopic remains of cotton fibers join an array of other preserved prehistoric organic materials found at the site: Over the past several years of excavation, Tel Tsaf, located near Kibbutz Tirat Tzvi, has provided a wealth of discoveries, including the earliest example of social beer drinking and ritual food storage.
“Tsaf is a site with amazing preservation of organic materials,” Prof. Danny Rosenberg of the Zinman Institute of Archaeology at the University of Haifa told The Times of Israel on Sunday.
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 fibers 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 fibers were woven.
Rosenberg 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 fibers.
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.
“Textiles are so imperative to our life,” Rosenberg told the Times of Israel. “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.”
Made in Pakistan, buried in Israel
The discovery of cotton fiber 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. Rosenberg said they can’t state for sure that the cotton came from the Indus region, but 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.
The Pakistani cotton joins a large number of discoveries in Tel Tsaf stretching across the ancient world, highlighting the town’s importance as a global trading hub. Rosenberg and other researchers have discovered beads from modern-day Anatolia, Romania, Egypt, and other parts of Africa, pottery from Iraq, Syria, and Armenia, and the earliest copper and metal in the world.
“Tel Tsaf was sort of a hub that concentrated a lot of trade and contact with lots of people,” said Rosenberg. “They had large-scale [grain] storage capacity at the site, which was huge compared to other sites.”
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.
Settlement at Tel Tsaf, near the Jordan River and the modern state of Jordan, dates to circa 5200-4700 BCE. The site offers researchers the opportunity to study this period of change as cities begin to emerge. The discovery of large-scale food storage suggests that the ancient people had reached an early formative stage in the development of human society, including the possible development of social hierarchies and wealth accumulation.
Excavations at Tel Tsaf have also unearthed well-preserved mudbrick architecture, the earliest metal item in the region, and evidence of long-distance trade. Rosenberg said the Great African Rift Valley, which stretches from Syria to Africa, was a “highway” for ancient trade routes, which is one reason Tel Tsaf was so prosperous.
“We are trying to understand why we have such a thriving village here, and we’re also trying to understand why, after 500 years, it was abandoned,” said Rosenberg.
Archaeologists have not uncovered any evidence of natural disasters at the site that could have led to its abandonment.
Tel Tsaf was initially identified in the 1940s during a Beit She’an Valley archaeological survey. The first detailed excavation took place in 1978-1980, when findings from deep probe trenches suggested that there were two occupation periods at the site: the Pottery Neolithic period and the Early Chalcolithic period. Another set of excavations was undertaken in earnest between 2004 and 2007, and uncovered evidence of Middle and Early Late Chalcolithic settlement.
Digging smaller, not deeper
“We had hints we need to look for fibers, but fibers and textiles are not a commonly studied topic in our area,” said Rosenberg. The site is rich with opportunities to make important discoveries on a microscopic level, he said, but this requires researchers to sift through samples of dirt as small as 100 milligrams (smaller than a drop of water).
First, archaeologists identify a spot in the dig that is likely to have organic remains, such as the inside of a food vessel. Then, researchers carefully scrape off debris from inside the vessel, wrap it in tinfoil, and seal it in a plastic bag to be opened only in the sterile lab environment.
The soil sediments were examined at Stanford University by a team led by Professor Li Liu, and supported by researchers from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock and the State Museum of Hanover, Germany, using a process called micro-remain analysis. The sediments are sometimes chemically manipulated to dissolve the unwanted dirt and allow other organic remains to be placed in slides and studied under a microscope.
Contamination is a major fear when working on such a small scale, but Rosenberg said none of their samples included synthetic fibers, which make up the majority of modern clothes and would have indicated contamination.
In the future, they will attempt to extract DNA from the cotton fiber remains, to confirm whether the cotton is really from Pakistan. Rosenberg said depending on the next dig season, they’re also hoping to try to extract DNA from olive seeds and legumes found on site, in addition to animal bones and some human remains.
Rosenberg said archaeologists are eager to apply whatever scientific technology is available to the study of ancient history, with advances allowing a peek into unprecedented levels of day-to-day life for prehistoric people.
“This research is starting to appear. There are so many important finds, and fibers is only one of them,” he said.
Amanda Borschel-Dan and Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.
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