Biotechnology

Invisible plant technology from prehistoric Philippines

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Stone tools contain microscopic evidence of ancient plant technology, according to a study published June 30, 2023 in the open access journal PLOS ONE by Hermine Xhauflair of the University of the Philippines Diliman and colleagues.

Credit: Carole Cheval – Art’chéograph, Xhauflair & Averion, CC-BY 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/)

Stone tools contain microscopic evidence of ancient plant technology, according to a study published June 30, 2023 in the open access journal PLOS ONE by Hermine Xhauflair of the University of the Philippines Diliman and colleagues.

Prehistoric communities likely used plant materials extensively for textiles and cordage, taking advantage of the flexibility and resilience of plant fibers as modern communities do. However, vegetable materials such as baskets and rope are rarely preserved in the archaeological record, especially in tropical areas, so prehistoric plant technologies are often rendered invisible to modern science. In Southeast Asia, the oldest artefacts made of plant fibers are around 8,000 years old. In this study, Xhauflair and colleagues identify indirect evidence of a much older crop technology.

This evidence comes from stone tools in Tabon Cave, Palawan, Philippines, which are 39,000 years old. These tools exhibit microscopic damage incurred during use. Indigenous peoples in the region today use tools to strip plants such as bamboo and palms, turning the stiff stems into flexible fibers to tie or weave. Researchers experimentally followed this plant processing technique and found that this activity left characteristic patterns of microscopic damage on stone tools. The same pattern was identified on three stone artefacts from the Tabon Caves.

It is one of the oldest evidences of fiber technology in Southeast Asia, highlighting the technological skills of prehistoric communities dating back 39,000 years. This research also demonstrates methods for uncovering hidden signs of prehistoric plant technology. Further study will shed light on how ancient these techniques are, how widespread they were in the past, and whether modern practice in this area is the result of unbroken traditions.

The authors add: “This study pushes back into the past of fiber technology in Southeast Asia. This means that the Prehistoric group living in Tabon Cave had the possibility of making baskets and traps, but also ropes with which to build houses, sailboats, hunt with bows, and make composite objects.

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In your coverage, please use this URL to provide access to articles freely available at PLOS ONE: https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0281415

Quote: Xhauflair H, Jago-on S, Vitals TJ, Manipon D, Amano N, Callado JR, et al. (2023) Invisible Plant Technologies in Prehistoric Southeast Asia: Circumstantial Evidence for Basket and Rope Making in Tabon Cave, Philippines, 39–33,000 years ago. PLoS ONE 18(6): e0281415. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0281415

Author Country: Philippines, France, Germany, Spain

Funding: The various stages of the project are supported by the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation program under grant agreement Marie Sklodowska-Curie #843521 (marie-sklodowska-curie-actions.ec.europa.eu), Institut de Recherche pour le Développement (www.ird .fr), Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle of Paris (www.mnhn.fr/fr), Ile-de-France Region (www.iledefrance.fr), Fondation Fyssen (www.fondationfyssen.fr/fr), Research Institute McDonald’s Archeology (University of Cambridge) (www.arch.cam.ac.uk/institutes-and-facilities-overview/mcdonald-institute-archaeological-research), Southeast Asian Institute of Archeology (iseaarchaeology.org), and the PrehSEA Programme. Funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or manuscript preparation.


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