Prehistoric Clothing

The first known humans to make clothing, Neanderthal man, survived from about 200,000 B.C.E. to about 30,000 B.C.E. During this time the earth's temperature rose and fell dramatically, creating a series of ice ages throughout the northern areas of Europe and Asia where Neanderthal man lived. With their compact, muscular bodies that conserved body heat, Neanderthals were well adapted to the cold climate of their day. But it was their large brain that served them best. Neanderthal man learned to make crude but effective tools from stone. Tools such as spears and axes made Neanderthals strong hunters, and they hunted the hairy mammoths, bears, deer, musk oxen, and other mammals that shared their environment. At some point, Neanderthals learned how to use the thick, furry hides from these animals to keep themselves warm and dry. With this discovery, clothing was born.

Evidence of the very first clothing is mostly indirect. Archeologists (scientists who study the fossil and material remnants of past life) discovered chipped rock scrapers that they believe were used to scrape meat from animal hides. These date to about 100,000 B.C.E. Archeologists believe that these early humans cut the hides into shapes they liked, making holes for the head and perhaps the arms, and draped the furs over their bodies. Soon their methods likely grew more sophisticated. They may have used thin strips of hide to tie the furs about themselves, perhaps in the way that belts are used today.

Cro-Magnon man, considered the next stage in human development, emerged around forty thousand years ago and made advances in the clothing of the Neanderthals. The smarter Cro-Magnon people learned how to make fire and cook food, and they developed finer, more efficient tools. Sharp awls, or pointed tools, were used to punch small holes in animal skins, which were laced

This cave painting depicts the slaughter of an animal whose skin would be used for clothing and whose meat would be used for food. Reproduced by permission of © .
together with hide string. In this way they probably developed the earliest coverings for the body, legs, head, and feet. It is thought that the first assembled piece of clothing was the tunic. A tunic is made from two pieces of rectangular animal hide bound together on one short side with a hole left for the head. This rough garment was placed over the head and the stitched length lay on the shoulders, with the remainder hanging down. The arms stuck through the open sides, and the garment was either closed with a belt or additional ties were placed at the sides to hold the garment on the body. This tunic was the ancestor of the shirt.

One of the most important Cro-Magnon inventions was the needle. Needles were made out of slivers of animal bone; they were sharpened to a point at one end and had an eye at the other end. With a needle, Cro-Magnon man could sew carefully cut pieces of fur into better fitting garments. Evidence suggests that Cro-Magnon people developed close-fitting pants and shirts that would protect them from the cold, as well as shawls, hoods, and long boots. Because they had not learned how to tan hides to soften them, the animal skin would have been stiff at first, but with repeated wearings it would become very soft and comfortable. Jacquetta Hawkes, author of The Atlas of Early Man, believes that Cro-Magnon clothes approached those of modern Eskimos in their excellence of construction.

Much of what is known about early clothing is a patchwork of very little evidence and good guesses. Only fragments of very early clothing have survived, so archeologists have relied on cave drawings, carved figures, and such things as the imprint of stitched-together skins in a fossilized mud floor to develop their picture of early clothing. The discovery of the remains of a man who died 5,300 years ago in the mountains of Austria, near the border with Italy, helped confirm much of what these archeologists had discovered. The body of this male hunter had been preserved in ice for over five thousand years, and many fragments of his clothing had survived.

Archeologists pieced together his garments, and they found that the iceman, as he became known, wore a complex outfit. Carefully sewn leggings covered his lower legs, and a thin leather loincloth was wrapped around his genitals and buttocks. Over his body the man wore a long-sleeved fur coat that extended nearly to his knees. The coat was sewn from many pieces of fur, with the fur on the outside. It was likely held close by some form of belt. On his feet the man wore animal hide short boots, stitched together with hide and stuffed with grass, probably to keep his feet warm in the snow. On his head the man wore a simple cap of thick fur. Though the iceman discovered in Austria appeared much later than the earliest Cro-Magnon man, the way his clothing was made confirmed the basic techniques and materials of early clothing. The ravages of time have destroyed most direct evidence of the clothing of early man, however.


Corbishley, Mike. What Do We Know about Prehistoric People? New York: Peter Bedrick Books, 1994.

Fowler, Brenda. Iceman: Uncovering the Life and Times of a Prehistoric Man Found in an Alpine Glacier. New York: Random House, 2000.

Goode, Ruth. People of the Ice Age. New York: Crowell-Collier Press, 1973.

Hawkes, Jacquetta. The Atlas of Early Man. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1976.

Lambert, David, and the Diagram Group. The Field Guide to Early Man. New York: Facts on File, 1987.

Wilkinson, Phil, and Nick Merriman, eds. Early Humans. New York: Dorling Kindersley, 2000.

User Contributions:

Fire and cooking were probably around for about a 750 thousand to 1 million years before anatomically modern humans (cromagnons), starting with Homo Erectus, a form of man that pre-dated Neanderthals considerably. Neanderthals had fire and even used fire in conjunction with natural resins to make a highly effective glue, which they probably used to manufacture tools. Some scientists believe their clothing was more sophisticated than the kind of simplistic drapery portrayed on most TV documentaries, since they would have required better fitting, tailored clothing to survive in harsh ice age climates. However, it's true that only the more modern humans had bone needles that seem appropriate for sewing very sophisticated garments. There's a big debate about how intelligent Neanderthals were. They seem to have focused more on very practical survival items and less on the high art and culture that anatomically modern humans eventually developed. But there's some evidence (controversial too) that they had decorative items, like shell jewelry, feathers and body paint of some kind. Their material culture was probably more sophisticated than we have formerly recognized, but not as impressive and diverse as modern humans. However, recent genetic tests show that the majority of modern humans from outside of equatorial Africa have some Neanderthal DNA, which suggests, perhaps, that they were closer to us than we originally thought, despite some differences.

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