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26 January 2017
Oldest evidence of silk found in ancient tombs

The oldest evidence of silk made by silkworms has been found buried in 8,500-year-old tombs in China. Silk was a rare luxury good in the ancient world. According to Chinese legend, after a silkworm cocoon dropped into the teacup of the wife of the Yellow Emperor, she found that the cocoon could unravel to yield about 1 kilometre of thread.
     Previous investigations at early Neolithic ruins dating back 9,000 years at Jiahu in the middle of Henan Province in central China had unearthed bone flutes that are the earliest known playable musical instruments in the world, the earliest mixed fermented beverage of rice, honey and fruit, the earliest domesticated rice in northern China, and possibly the earliest Chinese pictographic writing. Legends suggest silkworm breeding and silk weaving also began around this area. The region's warm and humid climate favoured the growth of mulberry trees, whose leaves are the sole food of silkworms.
     Until now the oldest evidence of silk dated back 5,000 years. Chemical analyses of soil samples from three tombs at Jiahu revealed evidence of silk proteins in two of the three tombs, one of which dated back 8,500 years. University of Science and Technology of China archaeologist and study co-author Decai Gong says this is "the earliest evidence of silk in ancient China." Bone needles and weaving tools found at the site indicate silk may have been woven or sewn into clothing textiles.
     The invention of silk was significant not only to ancient China; but to all of Eurasia. As a typical early Neolithic archaeological site in China, Jiahu preserves some of the earliest evidence of human civilisation. The results of this paper add silk to this list.

Edited from PLOS One (12 December 2016), LiveScience (10 January 2017)

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