Ancient Needles

By: V. C. B.

Originally Published in 1941

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THE origin of the sewing needle goes back, beyond written history, to the Palaeolithic age. This was the time when men, as hunters, first learned the art of sewing by converting animal skins into clothing to protect themselves from the cold. In comparing a modern needle to those illustrated below little difference will be seen. Yet the makers of these needles were the Magdalenian members of the Cro-Magnon race, a people perhaps best known for their beautiful paintings found in the caves of Europe.

Three bone needles
Magdalenian bone needles
Actual size.

While needles are associated with even earlier periods of the Palaeolithic, perfection in their manufacture was not attained until Magdalenian times. In some localities in France the bone needles are very numerous, indicating the workshops of needle-makers. Needles found in various stages of manufacture, together with certain definite flint tools, reveal the way they were made. A splinter was first removed from an animal bone with a graving tool, a process which in itself required much skill. Then this piece of bone was rounded, probably by scraping it with a notched blade, after which it was rubbed on a grooved block of sandstone for polishing and sharpening. Finally the eyehole was pierced by boring alternately on both faces. Only artifacts made of harder materials such as flint and bone have been preserved from these early times, but we can deduct from the customs of modern primitive peoples what type of thread was used with these needles. Reindeer and other animal bones, found in the caves, show marks of cutting in the region of the tendons. Since we know Esquimaux and Laplanders use tendons for threads, Palaeolithic man, living under similar circumstances, must have done likewise. The Laplanders, using their teeth, separate the reindeer sinews into slender threads, rubbing them from time to time with reindeer marrow to make them supple. The variation of the Magdalenian needle in form and dimension indicates that different sized threads were used and that therefore different types of needlework were probably known.

Whether the skins were joined together directly with such delicate needles is not known. Possibly perforations were made first with an awl. It is interesting to note, however, that the Esquimaux know how to prepare their skins in such a manner that direct use of the needle is possible. Thus we have a pretty accurate idea of the contents of a cave woman’s sewing kit. Unfortunately her needlework has not been preserved and we can only hope to know how these people dressed by finding their clothing portrayed in art. Perhaps future discoveries will give us some clue, although Palaeolithic man preferred to represent the human form in the nude. Undoubtedly the clothing consisted simply of prepared skins, some draped and others sewn. It may be that shells and other ornaments were sewn on the garments and perforated disks such as those which have been found, may have served as buttons.

Drawings of implements of used to create bone needles
Steps in the manufacture of bone needles. Magdalenian tools from the south of France. 1, long bone from which splinters have been removed with a 2, flint graving tool; 3, flint notched blade probably used for rounding shaft of bone needles; 4, gritstone for polishing and sharpening needles; 5, pointed blade used for drilling eyehole in needles. Nos. 3, 4, 5 after de Mortillet. Scale 2/3

Our modern or steel needles are said to have been invented by the Chinese, and were brought by the Moors into Europe where they were first manufactured at Nuremberg in 1370. It was not until about the 17th century, however, that they became an important industry.

Recently, in describing the discoveries at the famous Pekarna cave in Moravia, where a workshop showing every stage in the making of the needle was found, Dr. Karel Absalon, discoverer of the cave writes: “When we lay beside these ancient bone needles the latest and finest of steel needles, we perceive that humanity has not been able for 30,000 years to make any striking progress.”

The needles and long bone illustrated are from the cave of Espelugues, Lourdes, Hautes Pyrenees, France and are part of an acquisition from the Peabody Museum, Cambridge, Massachusetts. The drawings were made by Mr. Joseph S. Benditt, University Museum.

V. C. B.

Cite This Article

B., V. C.. "Ancient Needles." Museum Bulletin IX, no. 1 (January, 1941): 25-27. Accessed July 15, 2024.

This digitized article is presented here as a historical reference and may not reflect the current views of the Penn Museum.

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