Archaeologists have discovered a 40,000-year-old sophisticated tool used to make rope during the Palaeolithic era. The unique object, made from mammoth ivory, was recovered from a cave in south-western Germany.

In prehistoric times, rope and twine were critical tools used by hunter-gatherers to catch their prey, collect their food and create their weapons. However, how our ancestors made these ropes had so far remained a mystery. During past excavations, different teams of archaeologists had discovered impressions of string in fired clay and depictions of ropes in Paleolithic artwork. But this did not give the researchers clues about their process of fabrication.

The elaborate ivory tool found in the German cave of Hohle Fels is 20.4cm in length with four holes between 7-9 mm in diameter. Each of the holes is lined with deep and precisely cut spiral incisions.

rope making tool
Close up of the ropemaking tool made from mammoth ivory from Hohle Fels cave University of Tübingen

Similar objects had been discovered previously, but in a poor state of conservation. They had been interpreted as shaft-straighteners, decorated artworks or even musical instruments, but the well-conserved state of this new find enabled the team, from the Universities of Liège andTübingen to come up with a another hypothesis.

rope making tool
The ropemaking tool at the time of discovery in August 2015 University of Tübingen

The elaborate carvings on the tool suggest technological features of ropemaking rather than just decoration, and so it is believed to have been used to make rope out of plant fibres available near Hohle Fels. The fibres would have been squeezed through the holes to create the rope, as seen in the picture below.

rope making tool
Experiments demonstrating how the ivory artifact was used to make rope University of Liège

"This tool answers the question of how rope was made in the Paleolithic era, a question that has puzzled scientists for decades," says lead researcher Veerle Rots. The scientists estimate that the tool is the same age as other objects previously excavated from the cave, such as a flutes and female figurines – they say it was built some 40,000 years ago. With this discovery, Rots' team is rewriting the history of rope and showing once again that our ancestors developed early on very elaborate craftsmen's skills.