World's first hat discovered, and it turns out to be Stone Age tea cosy

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The Independent Online

Hats have been important fashion statements for women for at least 27,000 years, since the Old Stone Age, remarkable new archaeological research has shown.

The plaited head covering on the ritual "Venus" figure, pictured right, from the Palaeolithic period, might be the the world's first known hat. It is typical of a variety of woven clothing that dates back three times longer than has been previously assumed, say three American experts.

Scientists and academics had thought that the hunter-gatherers who pursued mammoths and other giant game across ice-age Europe wore only animal skins.

Weaving with plant fibres was thought to have been developed much later, only with the coming of agriculture and settled civilisation between 10,000 and 5,000 years ago

But Professor Olga Soffer says headgear, belts, skirts and cloth strips, probably made on a type of loom, were available in the Old Stone Age between 25,000 to 27,000 years ago, as were baskets, nets, cords and other items.

Professor Soffer, professor of anthropology at the University of Illinois, says woven garments can be identified on many of the 200 or so "Venus" figurines, carbon-dated to the Stone Age. They are the mysterious clay, stone or ivory models of Stone Age women from across Europe, whose principal point of interest has, up until now, been the exaggerated sexual characteristics they display. Professor Soffer and her colleagues James Adovasio and David Hyland have analysed the Venuses in minute detail and have found depictions of clothing on many of them.

The figurine illustrated, the Venus of Willendorf from Austria, is wearing "a fibre-based woven cap or hat rather than a hairdo posited by [earlier] scholars", they say.

They add: "This complex construction cannot be produced with growing, that is attached, human hair and therefore most certainly does not represent an Upper Pleistocene hairdo or paleo-coiffure."

Their conclusions will be published later this year in the Chicago-based journal Current Anthropology but are reported in this month's edition of British Archaeology.

Whether such items as the Venus of Willendorf's cap represent what women wore in everyday life 27,000 years ago is something Professor Soffer and her colleagues can neither confirm nor deny.

"It's possible it had religious significance," she said. "It certainly doesn't look like day-wear or even death-wear. It's possibly ritual wear.

"Whether it was worn for real or not, we don't know. It's like saints having the gold nimbus behind them - they don't walk around like that.

"But we know it was important, because as much energy was spent on depicting clothing on these figurines as on depicting sexual characteristics."