Stone tools found in the Philippines show microscopic evidence of some of Southeast Asia’s oldest plant technology, dating back 33,000 to 39,000 years ago.
Unlike stone tools, prehistoric technology that uses plant fibres (like textiles and woven baskets) rarely survive very long in the archaeological record before breaking down. This is especially true in the tropics.
In Southeast Asia, the oldest artefacts known to date made from plant fibres are about 8,000 years old.
Now, a paper published in PLOS ONE details indirect evidence found on well-preserved stone tools from the Philippines which point to prehistoric communities making use of plant fibres tens of thousands of years earlier.
Stone tools found in Tabon Cave on the Philippine island of Palawan, are nearly 40,000 years old. Etched onto their hard surfaces are the microscopic marks of damage produced through repeated use.
Indigenous communities in the region today still use tools to strip bamboo and palm, turning the rigid plant matter into fibres that can be used for tying or weaving. A team led by researchers from the University of the Philippines Diliman used this knowledge to identify the markings on three stone tools which suggested they were caused by similar plant processing techniques tens of thousands of years ago.
“This study pushes back in time the antiquity of fiber technology in Southeast Asia,” the authors write. “It means that the prehistoric groups who lived at Tabon Cave had the possibility to make baskets and traps, but also ropes that can be used to build houses, sail boats, hunt with bows and make composite objects.”
It is among the oldest evidence of plant fibres being used in this way in Southeast Asia, pointing to the technological proficiency of the ancient inhabitants.
Further research is needed to identify just how far back in time these techniques can be traced, how widespread they were, and whether modern practices are the uninterrupted successor techniques to this ancient tradition.
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