History of Knots


For mathematicians, the first object of study is the form of a knot, since other properties of interest to a practical knot tyer, as in the Ashley Book of Knots, are difficult to deal with mathematically, and in any case require first an understanding of form.

The use of cordage by humans goes back into prehistory. The oldest known pierced object is over 300,000 years old, and was found in Austria in the Repolusthöhle.

The book History and Science of Knots

Edited by J.C.TURNER and P VAN DE GRIEND, Published by World Scientific. 1995

gives a good coverage of many facets of the History and Science of Knots. The use of cordage by humans goes back into prehistory.

From Part I. Prehistory and Antiquity (Page 8)

`At Terra Amata, near Nice, there are 10 sites with stones and post holes presumably outlining dwellings, with occupational litter and hearths inside, dated at around 380,000 years ago. The poles may have been covered with skins or thatch; cordage may have been used to stabilise the structure or fasten the covering.

Cordage is also likely to have been used for suspending perforated objects. Beads or pendants begin around 300,000 years ago, the two oldest known specimens having been excavated in an Austrian cave, the Repolusthöhle. One is a nicely drilled wolf incisor, the other is a triangular, flaked bone point, perforated at the base, as shown in pictures below.

Spherical stones occur frequently in Lower Palaeolithic occupation sites up to at least 500 000 years old, in both Africa and China. They are usually from 6 to 12 cm in diameter, and it has been suggested that they may have been used as bola weights in hunting. If that were correct, it would undeniably prove the use of both cordage and knots, indeed probably some sort of bag or netting to hold the stones as well.'

Below you can see drawings and photographs of two perforated objects (flaked bone point and wolf incisor) from Middle Palaeolithic layers of the Repolstuhle, Syria. It has been proposed on the basis of the phylogeny of the bear remains at this location that the occupation deposits are nearly 300,000 years old.


These two drawings of the objects pictured below are taken from Robert G. Bednarik, `Palaeoart and archaelological myths', Cambridge Archaeological Journal, 2(1) (1992) 27-57, and the photographs have been supplied by him and are reproduced with his permission.

(All copyright R.G. Bednarik)


Perhaps the Stone Age should be called the Age of String! The string itself quickly perished. The brain power which developed to see how to tie axes, spears, slings, to make fishing nets, to sew clothes, to bind vegetation for shelter, to improve chances of survival, and to decorate for enjoyment and display - is part of ourselves. This understanding of the form of a twisted line must be one of the oldest forms of applied geometry.

The use of knots, links and braids in art and imagery is a huge topic. There is the extraordinary interlacing of Celtic Art, of which the most famous is the Book of Kells. Myriads of examples occur across the world.

Back to Aims

© Mathematics and Knots/Edition Limitee 1996 - 2002
This material may be used freely for educational, artistic and scientific purposes, with acknowledgement, but may not be used for commercial purposes, for profit or in texts without the permission of the publishers.