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Evidence of the use of cotton from 7,000 years ago was discovered at Tel Zef in the Jordan Valley

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

Obsidian beads from Anatolia discovered at Tel Tsef in the Jordan Valley. Photo: Haifa University
Obsidian beads from Anatolia discovered at Tel Tsef in the Jordan Valley. Photo: Haifa University

The earliest evidence of the use of cotton fibers in the Ancient Near East, and among the oldest in the world, from about 7000 years ago, was found in Tel Tsef in the Jordan Valley, in an excavation led by Prof. Danny Rosenberg from the School of Archeology and Maritime Cultures and in a study done in collaboration with other researchers from Stanford University, and the State Museum in Hanover.

The cotton fibers found at Tel Tsef predate the evidence found so far by several hundred years and they probably arrived at Tel Tsef from the Indus Valley region, present-day Pakistan, from a distance of thousands of kilometers. "Tel Tsef, is a large village from the Chalcolithic period, which prospered during the transition period between the small agricultural societies and the large and urban cities of the country. Until today, we knew that the inhabitants of the site maintained trade relations with distant regions such as Egypt, Iraq and Anatolia, and now the trade circle is expanding even further to the Indus Valley, where cotton apparently first made its home. What is interesting about this early evidence of a connection with such a distant region is that it comes from fibers, microscopic pieces of ancient filaments. We assume that these cotton fibers, which were found together with wool fibers and plant fibers, arrived at the site as part of fabrics or clothes, i.e. from an ancient textile," said Prof. Rosenberg.

 Humans probably produced textile products already 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 break down quickly in conditions other than dry conditions or inorganic conditions, in a significant part of the sites in the Mediterranean climate areas it is rare to find them and the main evidence comes to us from late texts and paintings, or from the tools that were apparently used to produce the fibers and textile products.

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 what was the plant from which it was woven. "Part of the issue is that this type of testimony was actually almost never looked for in ancient sites and many times they don't even try to find this type of find" said Prof. Rosenberg. "The main challenge, as 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 Zef, which flourished 7,200 years ago in the valley of the springs, not far from Kibbutz Tirat Zvi, was a very large settlement where probably hundreds of people lived. The settlement prospered for about five hundred years, and one of the great mysteries is why the settlement stopped at the site, without any signs of distress or lack of resources, one of the topics on which the researchers plan to invest a lot of effort in the coming years. "We are still trying to understand," says Prof. Rosenberg, "why in such an important period of time in human history when the small agricultural villages began to expand and grow, the social structure began to become complex - in what will be the basis for the growth of the important state cities of the region and significant technological and culinary developments - website So prosperous it ceased to exist."

The last years of excavation have already revealed evidence of important technological leaps that took place at Tel Tsef and economic ties that its inhabitants had with very distant regions, which were an integral part of the formation of the new socio-economic order, such as the appearance of metal, the production of beer for social and ceremonial consumption, specialization in the creation of uniform stone bricks, hoarding of food on a large scale and more.

That is why the researchers, led by Prof. Li Liu from Stanford University and Prof. Rosenberg from the University, decided that they would try to find the same stealthy evidence of the use and production of textiles. In the pioneering research conducted at the same time at Haifa and Stanford Universities, samples taken from fragments of ancient pottery found in residential layers on the site and from the land next to them were examined and 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 made from other plants, including wool, apparently from sheep. "The accepted concept until now is that the local flax was the plant from which textiles were made in the ancient Near East until the appearance of the wool industry thousands of years later. Our new evidence, which shows that some of the fibers were dyed, and together with studies we have conducted in recent years on tools used for textile production such as panel weights, challenge this concept, which indicates more developed technological capabilities than those we knew," said Prof. Rosenberg.

But an even more surprising find was cotton fibers, which is not a native plant in the ancient Near East. According to what is known to researchers, today's cotton has four origins, two in South and Central America, one in the Indus Valley, in 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 is evidence of the use of cotton beginning in the first century BC the count. Early DNA studies have shown that cotton was domesticated independently and separately in these areas, and although it is not possible to determine whether the cotton at Tel Tsef represents domesticated plants, according to the researchers, the early dating of Tel Tsef indicates with a very high probability that the cotton fibers came from the Indus Valley region and not from any source in Africa or America.

The earliest evidence we had so far for cotton fibers in our region was dated to a few hundred years later from the Late Chalcolithic period and the Early Bronze Age (approximately 6500-5000 years ago) and it comes from the Dhuweila site in eastern Jordan. In contrast to the exact dating at Tel Tsef, "the finds from Davila do not yet have a precise date and in any case they are later than those we found at Tsef by several hundreds of years, at the very least, and they join a series of unique finds from Tel Tsef, which testify to its importance as an ancient trading center, in addition to being a rich site whose economy was based on "Increased production of agricultural produce in an area that even today is characterized by many water sources and extremely high temperatures, especially in the summer," he adds.

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