Cultivation of Fibre Flax in Prehistory

The bushier seed flax plant

According to Vavilov (1987), flax was domesticated independently, in Africa and Asia, from the same wild parent plant  Linum bienne, to create the domesticated  Linum usitatissimumHe suggests that natural selection lead to the development of the long and short stemmed varieties, used for textiles and food respectively. These differences were created by the plants’ response to the ambient climate. Fibre flax, growing in the cooler North and food flax in the warmer south. Ivanov (1926) demonstrated this experimentally by moving the fibre plants south and seed plants north. The results showed that the fibre plants became shorter and bushier, with an increase in the yield of seeds and quality of seed oil. Whereas the seed plants grew taller, and were less bushy, yielding fewer seeds and a low quality oil. So this demonstrates that once cultivars were available, it was geography and not breeding that created the two forms of the plant.

Long stems of fibre flax

We know domesticated flax, spread across the globe over time, and archaeological remains can help us explore the process by examining finds including: seed and pollen analysis of soil samples, and preserved flax thread or linen remnants. Breniquet (2015) says that cultivated flax was grown in ancient Mesopitamia between 12 & 8000 BC; co-inciding with the appearance of both twined and woven textiles, such as basket weaving, spinning and cloth weaving cloth. This was noted to have preceded the domestication of  wool producing animals and production of woollen textiles, which appear when settled, agricultural communities formed in the neolithic period. Evidence from Eastern European sites suggests that bast fibre textiles emerged during the late paeleolithic (Sankari 2000), whilst flax and linen are evident in Northern Europe by C4000BC. The British Museum’s collection of Swiss Lake Dwelling Textiles, has given researchers the opportunity to examine and analyse these ancient fibres, with finds indicating processes for harvesting and extracting the fibres, through to spinning to dyeing and weaving (Higget et al 2011).

Although today Britain is an island, it was part of mainland Europe until rising sea levels cut it off, around 6000 BC. Whilst evidence found on the mainland, suggests that Britain did not make the transition to settled, agricultural communities until 4000 BC;  ancient plant DNA recovered from the underwater Boulder Cliff site, in the Solent, shows wheat was grown there, before it was submerged. It is thought seeds were obtained through trading goods and skills with “advanced” societies in Southern Europe (Allerby 2015). Allerby suggests that only lowland areas were actively engaged in farming at this time, but Clay (2001) notes that flax seeds and lime tree pollen were found in late mesolithic and neolithic settlement deposits in Buxton, Derbyshire, which was much further inland. However as no textile remnants have been found so there is no evidence for how flax was used.

Yet despite the evidence of the spread of cultivated flax we don’t really know how it happened. Was knowledge spread by word of mouth, trade or some form of proto-marriage, that created opportunities to share knowledge between tribal group. We don’t know who first discovered that the retted or rotted flax plant, contained a fibre that could be stripped out and used to make cloth, or why they tried to do so. Who first twisted the fibres? Invented the drop spindle and spun the fibre ever more finely? Wove with it?  Built the first looms for weaving? For a plant still used today, that lead to the development of technologies for preparing and creating textiles, created global trade, funded wars, peace, education, religions, and other important facets of later societies, it seems a pity that its origins are lost in time.

Fragment of Neolithic / Bronze Age Textile  British Museum

References and Bibliography

Allerby, R (2015) Changing Perceptions of Britain from the Mesolithic to the Neolithic Age. Warwick Knowledge Centre [online] Available at: Accessed 23/08/16

Clay, P (2001). An Archaeological Resource Assessment and Research Agenda for The Neolithic and Early-Middle Bronze Age of the East Midlands. [Online]. Available at: Accessed 23/08/16

Higget C, Harris H, Cartwright C, Cruickshank P (2011) Assessing the Potential of Historic Archaeological Collections: A Pilot Study of the British Museum’s Swiss Lake Dwelling Textiles. British Museum Technical Research Bulletin Vol 5 (pdf)

Ivanov MM (1926) Variation in the Chemical Composition of the Seeds of Oleiferous Plants in Dependence on Geographical Factors IN Vavilov NI, Dorofiev VF (ed) (1987 published post huomusly) (translated Love D (1992)) Origin and Geography of Cultivated Plants, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge

Sankari H (2000) Towards Bast Fibre Production In Finland: Stem And Fibre Yields And Mechanical Fibre Properties Of Selected Fibre Hemp And Linse Genotype,  Academic Thesis.  Faculty of Agriculture and Forestry of the University of Helsinki. [online] accessed 24/07/2016

Vavilov NI, Dorofiev VF (ed) (1987 ) (translated Love D (1992)) Origin and Geography of Cultivated Plants, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.


Cultivation of Fibre Flax in Prehistory