Archeologists have uncovered a veritable tangle of ancient flax fibers in a cave in the Republic of Georgia. The find consists of tiny bits of flax fibers that had been spun—and in some cases dyed—by upper Paleolithic hunters who occupied the cave intermittently beginning some 32,000 years ago.

"They might have used this fiber to create parts of clothing, ropes, or baskets—for items that were mainly used for domestic activity," Ofer Bar-Yosef, a professor of prehistoric archeology at Harvard University and co-author of a paper on the find, said in a prepared statement.

The researchers confirmed that cave's inhabitants were engaged in textile processing by also uncovering remnants of beetles, moths and fungal spores that have been linked to the presence of clothes and other hand-made items.

These fibers predate what were previously thought to be the oldest evidence of such handicraft: 28,000-year-old fiber imprints on clay objects in the Czech site of Dolni Vestonice.

"This was a critical invention for early humans," says Bar-Yosef, whose team has been excavating in the cave for the past 13 years, studying climatic changes through pollen distribution. "This was a wonderful surprise, to discover these ancient flax fibers at the end of this excavation project."

The results are detailed in the latest issue of Science.

Image of microscopic fiber samples courtesy of Science/AAAS