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What 7,200-yr-old fibres from Indus Valley found in Israel tell us about cotton domestication

Find predates evidence of cotton cultivation in Indus Valley, indicating either wild cotton products were created before domestication, or domestication occurred earlier than believed.

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Bengaluru: Fibres and textiles are an important part of human evolution as their production and exchange have greatly influenced societies for thousands of years. In archaeology, they have represented evidence of trade and culture. Evidence of trade between the Indus Valley and ancient Near East (Mesopotamia) can be traced back to 3500 BCE, or about 5,500 years ago.

In the ancient Near East (Mesopotamia, ancient Egypt, ancient Iran, Anatolia, Armenia, the Levant, Cyprus, Arabian Peninsula), cotton was not grown natively, and the earliest cotton products in the archaeological records were thought to have come from the Dhuweila site in Jordan about 6,400 years ago. On the other hand, in the Indus Valley, the earliest cotton seeds have been dated to Mehrgarh in modern day Pakistan to 5000 BCE, or 7,000 years ago.

But new archaeological finds from the Tel Tsaf site in Israel have shown the presence of cotton fibres originating in the Indus Valley and dating 5200 BCE, or 7,200 years ago.

Despite the presence of its seeds, cotton was believed to have been domesticated in the Indus Valley during the Harappan civilisation (2600-1900 BCE).

The new findings predate any earliest known cotton cultivation in the Indus Valley region (ranging from northwestern modern day India, eastern Pakistan, southern Balochistan, the banks and basins of the now-dry Indus River and the Ghaggar Hakra river) by at least 2,000 years.

The study also shows evidence of hemp and jute products in the region much earlier than previously believed. Additionally, all of the newly discovered fibres were also dyed in various colours, indicating a complex social life.

The findings have been published in the journal, Frontiers in Plant Science.

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Cotton and textile in the Fertile Crescent

The Fertile Crescent, comprising the arch-shaped land from Egypt through Mesopotamia to Indus Valley, was home to not just these three ancient civilisations but also where settled farming (and agriculture) first emerged. 

The earliest concrete, non-contested evidence for textiles is dated to the Nahal Hemar cave site in Israel back to nearly 7,700 years ago in the form of flax textiles. Such natural fibres made from plants and tree barks (bast fibres) were the first form of textiles and cordage in human history.

Flax was the main material for textiles until wool began to be used about 2,000 years ago in the region. On the other hand, cotton has never been grown natively in the ancient Near East.

There are four cultivated cotton species in the world today: two from South and Central America, and two from the Old World — Gossypium arboreum from the Indian subcontinent and Gossypium herbaceum from Africa. The two species were domesticated independently. 

In the Indus Valley, the ancient known evidence for cotton fibre are threads used to string copper beads in 6000-5500 BCE in Mehrgarh. The earliest cotton fabric, which would have been created after early Harappans were able to weave with fibres, is a piece of cloth sticking to the lid of a vase in Mohenjodaro from 3000 BCE. 

These artefacts are thought to have been created from wild cotton, as cotton is hypothesised to have been domesticated and cultivated only after 2600 BCE. 

In Africa, cotton remains have been dated to much later, in the 1st century BCE. 

Cotton in the ancient world would have been a finicky plant as it requires large amounts of water. Thus, it was domesticated on the river banks of Indus and Nile. 

In the ancient Near East, the earliest cotton remains were previously thought to be from the Jordanian site of Dhuweila, where cotton fibres and impressions of cotton fabric were discovered dating to about 4450 BCE. 

Traders and nomads

Actual cotton textiles in the archaeological record in ancient Near East about 500 years later than cotton microfibers, which were found as remnants of textiles in Georgia. Through DNA analysis, the cotton in both places was confirmed to be the Indus Valley cotton, despite both being quite far away from the Indian subcontinent. 

Therefore, it is theorised that cotton products and seeds would have been moved around in the ancient world through trade, exchange, or casual contact among people much before the evidence for textiles appears in the archaeological record. 

The Dhuweila cotton is thought to be a prime example for this, as the site is about 200 km east of Tel Tsaf and was located within a trade network. 

Apart from cotton fibres, other artefacts of foreign origin have also been discovered here, indicating it was a trade hub. 

The well-dated cotton fibres found at Tel Tsaf were several hundred years later than the cotton strings from the Mehrgarh copper beads, but at least 300 years earlier than the cotton fabric from Dhuweila in Jordan, write the authors in the paper. 

Furthermore, the cotton fibres and other bast fibers discovered at the site were also dyed with multiple colours, indicating complex social activities in the region. 

“If some of these cotton fibers were of textiles or strings originated in Indus Valley during the early fifth millennium BC, one would have to ask if the timing of cotton domestication in its source may have been earlier than the third millennium BC as previously suggested, or if wild cotton products were more prevalent than previously thought,” concludes the study. 

(Edited by Smriti Sinha)

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