Think your Morrissey T-shirt from high school is old? Archaeologists have unearthed fabric and rope fragments that date as far back as 12,000 years in the past, making them the oldest known textiles in South America, according to a report in the April 2011 issue of Current Anthropology. Although the textiles were recovered from a cave in the Andes three decades ago, their age was largely unknown. Researchers chose to estimate the age of the site by taking radiocarbon dates from bone, obsidian, and charcoal—articles that can sometimes produce iffy results, says Edward Jolie, an archaeologist at Mercyhurst College who led the current team. Charcoal especially can overestimate a site’s age, he adds.

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“By dating the textiles themselves,” Jolie says in a press release, “we were able to confirm their antiquity and refine the timing of the early occupation of the Andes highlands.” Using accelerator mass spectrometry, Jolie and his cohorts placed the fragments at between 11,080 and 12,100 years old.

Accelerator mass spectrometry placed the fragments at between 11,080 and 12,100 years old.

Likely left by settlers from lower-altitude communities during occasional mountain forays, the remains include scraps of woven fabrics possibly used for bags, baskets, wall or floor coverings, or bedding. “Guitarrero Cave’s location at a lower elevation in a more temperate environment, as compared with the high Andean [plain], made it an ideal site for humans to camp and provision themselves for excursions to even higher altitudes,” Jolie observes.

These bold outings paved the way—quite literally—for permanent settlements once the climate warmed and the glaciers receded. Some of these early explorers might even have been women, Jolie’s research suggests. Bundles of processed plant material retrieved from the cave, for instance, are a sign that textile weaving took place at the site. “Given what we know about textile and basket production in other cultures, there’s a good possibility that it would have been women doing this work,” Jolie adds.

+ Press Release