Saturday, January 23, 2016

Who invented clothes? A Palaeolithic archaeologist answers Hadley Freeman's answer to the question was chiffon-flimsy, so here's the lab-coat response.

An exhibit shows the life of a neanderthal family in the Neanderthal Museum in Krapina, Croatia
"Who invented clothes?" It's one of those brilliant questions that children ask, before they learn that the big things we wonder about rarely have simple answers. It's the kind of thing that archaeologists like me get put on the spot about when chatting to kids, and we love to have a crack at answering.
Saturday's "Ask a grown up" section featured just that question, from eight-year old Harriet, with an answer by Hadley Freeman, fashion expert and fantastic writer. Hadley's response was, as usual, entertainingly breezy, with some refreshing encouragement to Harriet to experiment in developing her own style; but, like a fine chiffon, it was a little flimsy in substance.
I'm proud to be involved with ScienceGrrl, which aims to show girls that science is for everyone by providing diverse role models, and TrowelBlazers, a new project that is all about bringing to the fore the achievements of pioneering women archaeologists, geologists and palaeontologists. So I was kind of disappointed that a girl asking a genuine question about archaeology ended up with the barest of facts, as well as being told, even if it was meant lightheartedly, that the grown-up answering her question would rather she pay attention to what she looks like.
Hadley knows today's fashion world inside out and might not care much about pre-silk times, but I'll bet that Harriet wanted to find out more than what the Flintstones wear.
It's this kind of response that can, in aggregate, have a negative impact on children: being mentally curious ends up as something deeply uncool and not relevant to modern life. I'm not advocating force-feeding facts Vulcan-style when talking to young people – far from it. They like to be challenged and humour is a great way to do this. But I do think we should take every chance we get to pass on the incredible stuff that we've found out about our world thanks to science – including archaeology – and keep on showing girls that using their brains by asking big questions is, actually, absolutely fabulous.
So for Harriet, if you're reading: there's a whole lot we know about the invention of clothing. Many TV reconstructions and book illustrations of stone age (Palaeolithic) people really don't do them justice. People were already making finely worked bone needles 20,000 years ago, probably for embroidery as much as sewing animal skins, like the thousands of ivory beads and fox teeth thatcovered the bodies of a girl and a boy buried at Sunghir, Russia, around 28,000 years ago. This was some serious bling, representing years of accumulated work.
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