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The Invention of String

Photo credit: Skitterphoto, Pixababy

Did you ever play cat’s cradle when you were a kid?

I did, with clever friends in elementary school, but I could never recreate the game when I tried it at home. I could blame this on my little brother’s clumsy fingers, but really, it was because I could never remember how to do it past the first few steps.

I thought of cat’s cradle when I came across this Smithsonian magazine article on the invention of string.

Researchers have found that humans first invented string between 160,000 and 120,000 years ago.[1] They know that people in North Africa, South Africa and Israel used string to join naturally perforated seashells together. These strings of shells may have been used as charms or jewellery, or they may have indicated their wearers’ marital status or kinship relationships.

The invention of string had a profound impact on human civilization. String was used for a host of practical purposes—fishing nets, fishing lines, bowstrings, rope for tying logs into rafts and thread for sewing clothes together.

When my mom was a young teacher, in the 1940s, she used store string to teach her students to crochet sugar-starched baskets. Her pupils filled these with handmade paper flowers and presented them to their moms on Mother’s Day.

When I was I was a kid, the bread we bought at the local bakery was wrapped in brown paper tied with string that was saved in a special drawer and used again.

Today, the only time I use string is to tie up garden plants.

I’m still trying to figure out cat’s cradle, but I did find a YouTube video with great directions. Now I just need to convince my little brother to come and play with me again.

[1] If you want to impress your friends with all the trivia you know, you can tell them string was invented between 160 and 120 ka BP. What’s that, you ask? I had to look it up. Archaeologists and geologists use the shorthand “ka BP” for “kilo anni Before the Present.” Kilo is Latin for 1,000 and annum (plural anni) is Latin for year. So in plain English, it means “1,000 years ago.” More or less. “Present” time doesn’t actually mean “today.” The BP time scale uses January 1, 1950, as the start of present time because this was close to the time when radiocarbon dating began to be used.

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