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Ice Age clothing said to be more advanced than previously thought

February 01, 2000

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- Archaeologists have discovered what the well-dressed Ice Age woman wore on ritual occasions. Her outfit, however, including accessories, doesn't resemble anything Wilma Flintstone ever wore, or, for that matter, any of our carved-in-stone conceptions of "paleofashion."

Instead, the threads of at least some Ice Age women included caps or snoods, belts and skirts, bandeaux (banding over the breasts) and bracelets and necklaces -- all constructed of plant fibers in a great variety of cloth, from twined and basket wear to plain weaves. While styling varied across Eurasia, the finest weaves are "comparable to not only Neolithic but even later Bronze and Iron Age products, or, in fact, to thin cotton and linenwear worn today," Olga Soffer, James Adovasio and David Hyland wrote in an article to be published in Current Anthropology.

The evidence for Ice Age summer fashions comes in part from 80 textile impressions Soffer found on tiny clay fragments in the Czech Republic. The impressions are "the earliest evidence for cordage and textile production in the world and reflect technologies heretofore associated with much later periods," the archaeologists wrote. Soffer, a professor of anthropology at the University of Illinois and a pioneer in the study of Upper Paleolithic life ways, compared the impressions to the representation of clothing on the so-called "Venus" figurines, which also date to the Gravettian period, roughly 25,000 years ago. "It suddenly struck us that what we were looking at under the microscope on these little fragments was precisely what was being shown as clothing on some of these 'naked ladies,' " she said, noting that in all likelihood the Ice Age seamstresses also carved the figurines that showed off their "exquisitely detailed" weaving, plaiting and coiling skills.

Among other things, the findings "get our ancestors out of the smelly furs and hides that they've been dressed in in our imagination, and into fine woven clothing -- at least in warm-weather months," said Soffer, lead researcher in the study of women's wear "B.V." ­ "Before Vogue," as she likes to say. The new research also provides a new way of thinking about our ancestors, Soffer argues. Up to now we have had "a monotonous image of our deep past," she said, which consists of hide- and fur-wrapped "brave men with lances going after mammoths." But these are the activities of a minority of the population. "Where were the women and children?" Soffer asks. "Where are the old people and the infirm, and what are they doing? Surely a lot more than simply sitting around admiring their brave heroes."

Indeed, the new analysis sheds light on the major role that some women played in late Pleistocene societies. The women who turned out such fine garments, the archaeologists hypothesize, probably enjoyed high status in the society, their wear considered items of great value.

Archaeology is Soffer's second career. Before she was "born again," she said, she "grew up in the fashion industry, doing fashion promotion for the Federated Department Stores. FDS and Abraham & Strauss taught me everything I know," said Soffer, with a wink.

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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