National Geographic Daily News
A reconstruction of a Neanderthal female.
A reconstruction of a Neanderthal female.

Photograph by Joe McNally, National Geographic

Brian Switek

for National Geographic

Published September 11, 2013

As Fashion Week winds down in New York, scientists continue their own search for the very latest in ancient fashion—latest meaning oldest. They're asking one seemingly simple question: Who invented clothes anyway?

As straightforward as it sounds, it isn't easy to answer. We may be used to artistic depictions of prehistoric Homo sapiens and Neanderthals wrapped in furry hides, but, in truth, the story of how clothing became such a prominent mark of humanity is only just starting to be unraveled.

Clothing doesn't readily fossilize. Much like the soft tissues that wrap our bones, fabrics and other body coverings decay rapidly. Yet, despite this, archaeologists and anthropologists are starting to figure out the elements of prehistoric style through an array of indirect evidence that includes everything from dyed plant fibers to lice.

The Dawn of Fashion

According to Université Bordeaux archaeologist Rebecca Wragg Sykes, the oldest garments archaeologists have found are all relatively young. There are 8,000-year-old bark sandals from Oregon, a shirt and beaded dress made about 5,000 years ago in Egypt, and the clothing of Otzi—the 5,000-year-old "Ice Man"—who wore leather and woven grass shoes, a fur jacket, leather leggings, and even leather underwear.

But Wragg Sykes says that "if you accept that clothes are pretty delicate things and will be preserved intact extremely rarely, then you can look for other evidence of their presence during more ancient times."

She says that ancient burials, for instance—like a 28,000-year-old Homo sapiens grave in Sungir, Russia—"record the ghosts of garments" in the form of beads and teeth that must have been part of clothing.

But burial wear wasn't the day-to-day coverings of these people. The record on prehistoric daily wardrobes is sketchy, but Wragg Sykes has pointed to a suite of indirect evidence that people were creating clothing tens of thousands of years ago.

Dyed plant fibers—pink, black, and blue—from a 30,000-year-old cave site in the country of Georgia hint at early fabric-making. Delicate, 20,000-year-old bone needles were likely used to create clothing and jewelry.

Contrary to artists' depictions showing prehistoric people in rough furs only, Wragg Sykes says the archaeological record is clear that people were making much more complex clothes by 25,000 years ago.

Both stone tools and lice, respectively, take the possibility of clothes back even further.

"Toolkits dominated by stone scrapers become more commonplace in Europe and southern Africa beginning around 300,000 years ago," says Australian National University's Ian Gilligan, who has published studies of prehistoric clothing. Overall, he says, "the relative frequencies of these hide-working tools [is] correlating strongly with colder climatic fluctuations."

Then there's the lice. A 2011 study found that lice that live on clothing have a genetic trail going back to between 83,000 and 170,000 years ago.

Neanderthal Style

Prehistoric Homo sapiens wasn't the only species of human to wear clothing, though. Our close Neanderthal relatives undoubtedly did, too.

In art and even anthropology, Neanderthals have often been derided as cruder versions of ourselves. A famous 1909 illustration of a Neanderthal depicted a naked, hairy, exceptionally ape-like human, and even more modern restorations sometimes show these people with tattered, haphazardly created animal skins dangling off their bodies in what our modern eyes perceive as the barest attempt to be modest.

But there are some clues that Neanderthals were doing far more than throwing on smelly skins. From microscopic wear patterns left on their tools, Wragg Sykes says, there's a good indication that Neanderthals took care to prepare clothing.

"There is one tantalizing indication that they were tanning leather about 100,000 years ago," Wragg Sykes says: "organic scraps—left on a stone tool from Neumark Nord in Germany—that contain high levels of tannin from an oak that was present during this warm phase."

There are also biological reasons to think that Neanderthals covered up.

In a 2012 study, University of Connecticut anthropology graduate student Nathan Wales attempted to reverse-engineer what sort of clothing Neanderthals would have worn.

After surveying the clothing of 245 non-prehistoric hunter-gatherer cultures and the environmental conditions in which they lived, Wade hypothesized that Neanderthals inhabiting especially cold Ice Age regions would have covered up to 80 percent of their body surface with "non-tailored clothing."

Modern humans, by contrast, were expected to be less cold-tolerant and to bundle up against winter chills with more carefully crafted clothing.

This supposed difference in clothing culture has even played into the persistent—and still unresolved—question of why Homo sapiens survived and Neanderthals (in their anatomy and culture, since many of us carry Neanderthal genes) died out.

In a 2007 review, anthropologist Gilligan suggested that Neanderthals were biologically better able to withstand the cold and therefore had less reason to develop sophisticated garments to stay warm. "Their superior physical cold tolerance, however, meant less need for behavioral cold adaptations," Gilligan says.

Clothes Make the Man?

The need of our species to shield ourselves from the chill, Gilligan hypothesizes, led us to develop the technologies and artistic culture to produce comfier clothing. Thus our species was technologically flexible enough to cope with painfully cold temperature spikes of the Ice Age, the idea suggests, whereas the Neanderthals were not so prepared.

But Wragg Sykes doesn't find the argument especially convincing.

"I think the distinctions drawn between Middle and Upper Paleolithic clothing in terms of insulation are overstated, as they're based on very little actual evidence," Wragg Sykes says, referring to the Middle Paleolithic culture of the Neanderthals and the Upper Paleolithic culture of our species.

"I can't see that Neanderthal clothing would have specifically hindered them more than contemporary H. sapiens in regard to a fluctuating climate," she says.

Wales agrees, noting that "Neanderthals lived in a range of habitats, including relatively temperate environments where minimal clothing would be required."

Wales continues, "In these environments, differences in clothing would probably have little to no effect on the survival of the species."

We still don't know what Neanderthals—or even modern humans of the time—wore, and because Neanderthals became anatomically extinct, we have a tendency to look back at them as if they were inferior.

But Neanderthals and prehistoric Homo sapiens undoubtedly had some sense of style, and we can only imagine what they would think of the flashy, sometimes bizarre garments their descendants show off each year in New York.

22 comments
Mario Reoyan
Mario Reoyan

it was naked then just like adam and eve after realizing that malice came, ohhh fig leaf to cover genetals

a m
a m

What about the Bog people bodies where they found braided leather mini skirts on the women and other leather garb?  Or do they belong to the Upper Paleolithic/Mesolithic group?  Their facial features are modern.  Yet they are dated as far back as 8000 BCE.

Lance Butler
Lance Butler

Why don't you connect me to they so that our modern day scientific fashion may be evaluated that I possess? I need to be activated as it doesn't get any better that what is currently taking place  & at hand. 1 hand? We need many many more!

Hrinita Khan
Hrinita Khan

Its good to look back and search for the ultimate answers which our forefathers left for us................

Gale Kooser
Gale Kooser

What surprises me, is why scientists don't take into account that Neanderthals lived closer to nature then do "modern" humans. Meaning: They very well could have migrated, as did other animals (which still do to this day) and therefore not needed "flashy" clothes, just serviceable ones that could be replaced at any time. Furs etc. could also been used to hide their presents when hunting.

Beth Passi
Beth Passi

I think our ancient ancestors were equally as brilliant as humans today, they had nothing and they learnt to survive and be happy, we would never have been playing on our smart phones today if the first humans had been lax. :)


Gangadharan Pulingat
Gangadharan Pulingat

I like this the history of clothing which is said to be 28 and 30000 thousand invented history so far.  In this era of fashion textiles in different colours and varieties it is pretty good to imagine what our forefathers were used for their clothing and to give protection for their body from extreme climatic change and forest  atmosphere.  We have gone very far and tomorrow it can be expected epoch making changes in human beings' clothing perhaps with uptodate fashion and design than today. 

Biju Toha
Biju Toha

latest meaning oldest"  Really I like this ....

Shreehari Narayan
Shreehari Narayan

Exciting find! animals are all  fashion-conscious and we humans are just  Spiritual animals(dont know how else to define us)! this just shows that fashion was always a necessity of life and natural!

Scott Parmer
Scott Parmer

I think that clothes came about in use the more hairless we became. Now all of the sudden when running through the forest the branches hurt. humankind realized they needed cover.

Bridget Cameron
Bridget Cameron

I think our predecessors would have worn clothes that were practical and made of materials that they could hunt and find, such as animal skins, sinew for thread, and materials that they could weave such as hemp and river grasses. Later, when we learned to cultivate and spin, materials such as wool, cotton and silk were used, before we began to make our own synthetic materials. 

Today, I think we give fashion too much of our attention, money, advertising space, and time.  It changes with the seasons, and models starve themselves to fit into the latest catwalk creations. Aren't there more important things than wearing the latest fashions? Like feeling comfortable and warm in what you wear, and being happy with what choices you make to be comfortable. People are too easily seduced by image, even if it is not a good one!

Bob Burnitt
Bob Burnitt

There is only ONE thing I want to know about CLOTHES.  Who was the BOZO that thought wearing a COAT in the SUMMER TIME when it is 108 degrees makes a man "look good"??  I think it makes him look STUPID.  It's 108 degrees for Christ's sakes.  Whose idea was THAT??  I live in Texas where it is Hot and HUMID, it has been 100 to 108 every day for the last two months.  That is CRAZY to put on a WOOLEN COAT and then cinch up a TIE as tight as you can around your neck, its enough to cause a HEAT STROKE when it is 108 degrees.  Man that is NUTS.  Who was the guy that set that STANDARD, and it was BEFORE they had Air conditioning.  what "Looks Good" to people is a LEARNED response.  Seems like people could LEARN something smarter than that.  I only wear a Suit at Funerals, and I haven't been to one of those in 12 years.  BB

a m
a m

I definitely think people are getting more refined with each generation.  Even people of the last few generations have trouble with the technology today that kids take right to.  The jumps might be very slight, but they are there.

Mzakes Mzet Tamele
Mzakes Mzet Tamele

@Beth Passi They were . Human minds work the same . Life today is better than it was hundred years ago , and in hundred years from today it will definitely be more advanced . You know why ? Cos ideas are always getting improved . Everything that u see today was started thousands of years ago . 

Anna Matthews
Anna Matthews

@Shreehari Narayan Humans are animals. By definition, as we are not protists, fungi, plants, bacteria, or archaebacteria. While it is true many humans believe themselves to be above their biology, in actuality our emotions, reasoning skills, language, and other "human" traits have been shown to exist in other species of animal.

Anna Matthews
Anna Matthews

@Scott Parmer Probably something similar to that, though considering the scientific theory on why we lost our hair (because we needed to sweat when hunting) that would not necessarily work. Most likely it would be due to cold climates, as in warm climates clothing would only hinder.

Walter Matera
Walter Matera

@Bob Burnitt Dude, mens clothing evolved in the UK where it's never over 100.  Damned seldom gets over 80.  Texas clothing should be designed to keep you from getting sunburned, not freezing to death.  However, tee-shirts and cargo shorts just make you look like a chump. :D

Judi F
Judi F

They weren't, actually. There is evidence that our brains have gotten smaller, some estimates put it at about a 10% loss of brain matter. Our reliance on modern technology could be causing the shrinkage. The fact is, if we went back in time to the age of early humans and Neanderthals, we would die. We have lost our keen senses and lack survival skills. Early humans were definitely much smarter than we are.

Anna Matthews
Anna Matthews

@Judi F I am going to ignore the part of your comment where you ignore evidence showing that larger brains means better (in which case neanderthals would have been much, much smarter than us in terms of survival, though not in terms of reasoning due to the prefrontal cortex). The problem with the statement that we are getting dumber is defining what is "intelligent". In terms of IQ, for example, we have gone up something like 40 points in the last 100 years, though due to the way the IQ scores are calculated as averages, this is not necessarily obvious. In terms of survival, we do lack the epigenetic components that they would have had, but our general problem solving skill has increased. If given the knowledge and epigenetic markers they had, we would no doubt do just as well "in the wild" as they would have. Finally, there is the question of knowledge building, which is fairly self-explanatory, so I will not get into it here.


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