Photo Credit: Tel Tsaf research team
Tel Tsaf ¬– excavations in one of the rooms where the cotton fibers were found.

The earliest evidence of the use of cotton fibers in the ancient Near East, and one of the oldest in the world, from about 7000 years ago, was found in Tel Tsaf, an archaeological site located in the central Jordan Valley, south-east of Beit Shean, in an excavation led by Prof. Danny Rosenberg from the University of Haifa.

The cotton fibers found at Tel Tsaf predate the evidence found so far by several hundred years and they probably arrived at Tel Tsaf from the Indus Valley region, present-day Pakistan, from a distance of thousands of kilometers.


“Tel Tsaf is a large village from the Chalcolithic age (a.k.a. the copper age, between the late 5th and the late 3rd millennia BCE – DI),” said Prof. Rosenberg. He added that the village flourished during the transition period between the small agricultural societies and the large urban cities of the land.

“Until today we knew that the inhabitants of the site had trade relations with distant regions such as Egypt, Iraq, and Anatolia, and now the circle of trade expands even further to the Indus Valley, where cotton was probably first domesticated. What’s interesting about this early evidence of a connection with such a distant region is that it comes from fibers––microscopic pieces of ancient threads. We assume that these cotton fibers, found together with wool and plant fibers, arrived at the site as part of fabrics or clothing, that is, from ancient textiles,” he explained.

Tel Tsaf – a view of Jordan. / Tel Tsaf research team

His study was conducted in collaboration with researchers from Stanford University, and the State Museum in Hanover.

Humans probably produced textile products tens of thousands of years ago, using certain plants such as flax, for the fabric fibers they created. However, since fabrics and many other organic materials tend to degrade rapidly under conditions that aren’t dry or inorganic, it was rare to find them in most of the sites with a Mediterranean climate, and evidence of such use comes to us from later texts and paintings, or from the tools that were apparently used to produce the fibers and textile.

Recently, however, researchers have begun to use new methods for locating organic findings, including microscopic and chemical tests that are able not only to locate evidence of plants but also to identify whether it is a fiber that was woven on purpose and the plant from which it was woven.

Tel Tsaf – remains of olive pits. / Tel Tsaf research team

“Part of the issue is that this type of evidence was rarely looked for in ancient sites and many times they didn’t even try to find this type of find,” explained Prof. Rosenberg. “The main challenge in DNA studies and organic material studies that we do at Tel Tsaf is to prevent modern contamination of the sample. In the case of fiber and textile research, the challenge is to neutralize the entry of modern fibers into the sample, since cotton fibers can be found in most clothing items today.”

Tel Tsaf, which researchers say flourished 7,200 years ago in the valley of springs, not far from Kibbutz Tirat Zvi, was a very large settlement with hundreds of residents. The settlement prospered for about five hundred years, and it is a great mystery why it ended, without any signs of distress or lack of resources. This is one of the subjects the researchers plan to investigate in great depth in the coming years.

“We are still trying to understand why this prosperous settlement ceased to exist in such an important period in human history when small agricultural villages began to expand and grow and the social structure was becoming,” said Prof. Rosenberg.

The last years of excavation at the site have revealed evidence of important technological leaps that took place at Tel Tsaf, and the economic ties the inhabitants maintained with very distant regions, and were an integral part of a new socio-economic order: the appearance of metal; the production of beer for social and ceremonial consumption; specialization in the creation of uniform stone bricks; and the hoarding of food on a large scale.

Tel Tsaf – obsidian beads from Anatolia. / Tel Tsaf research team

This is why the researchers, led by Prof. Rosenberg from Haifa University and Prof. Li Liu from Stanford University, decided that they would try to find the stealth evidence of the use and production of textiles at the same site. To that end, they conducted parallel pioneering research at Haifa and Stanford universities, examining samples taken from fragments of ancient pottery that were found in residential layers on the site, as well as from the land next to it. The promising results are already being used as a basis for various follow-up studies.

Most of the evidence found in the current study at Tel Tsaf was of flax fibers, but the researchers also found evidence of fibers that were probably produced from other plants, as well as sheep’s wool. But an even more surprising find was cotton fibers since cotton was not a native plant in the ancient Near East.

Today’s cotton has four origins: two in South and Central America, one in the Indus Valley––today’s Pakistan, where there is evidence of the use of cotton as early as 6000 years ago––and the last one, in Africa, where there’s evidence of the use of cotton beginning in the first century BCE.

DNA studies have shown that cotton was domesticated independently and separately in those four areas, and although it is not possible to determine whether the cotton at Tel Tsaf represents domesticated plants, according to the researchers, the early dating of Tel Tsaf indicates with great probability that the cotton fibers came from the Indus Valley region and not from any source in Africa or, obviously, America.


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