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7000-year-old Pakistani origin cotton found in Israel

Around 7,000 years ago, somebody arrived in a prehistoric village in today’s northern Israel with a luxurious novelty: cotton. Cotton was not known to the earliest civilizations rising in the Near East where and when it was first domesticated remains a mystery.

But now traces of this alien plant with its exquisitely soft bolls have been detected in Tel Tsaf. This is the earliest trace of cotton found in the Near East to date by centuries, the researchers say. They believe it originated in the Indus Valley, though do not rule out an African origin. How did cotton get to Tel Tsaf 7,000 years ago from the Indus Valley (or North Africa)? By trading, suggest Li Liu of Stanford University.

Now Liu, Rosenberg and colleagues have detected cotton microfibers, at least some of which were dyed, from 7,000 years ago. This may provide further indication of trading relationships at the cusp of the transition from the Late Neolithic to the Early Chalcolithic in the valley.

In short, before cotton, people in the region were using bast and flax fibers. And now Liu, Rosenberg and the team report on cotton in Tel Tsaf – definitely from afar, and seemingly before the plant had even been domesticated. And it was dyed, to boot.

Excavation work at the site where the cotton fibers were found.Credit: Li Liu et al., Frontiers in Plant Science

Why couldn’t the cotton fibers of Tel Tsaf be local? And why do they think it’s Pakistan, not North Africa? It apparently didn’t grow in prehistoric Israel, and the thinking is that like the “invention” of agriculture itself – the cultivation of cotton arose independently around the world, including in the Indus Valley and North Africa. “But cultivation in North Africa was later,” Rosenberg explains.

The earliest archaeological evidence of cotton’s use is in the Pre-Pottery Neolithic period at the Mehrgarh burial site in central Balochistan, Pakistan. Cotton threads were used to string copper beads about 8,500 to 7,500 years ago. It bears clarifying that the earliest known cotton fabric is a tiny fragment of actual cloth (albeit stuck to the lid of a silver vase), which was discovered at Mohenjo-daro, also Pakistan, from 5,000 to 4,750 years ago.

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