Night Music: Uwrongo

January 14, 2022

The String That Binds Us

January 14, 2022


4,000 year old rope at Mersa/Wadi Gawasis Egypt
Well-preserved rope was discovered at an archaeological site in Egypt dating to almost 4,000 years ago. Photo courtesy of the Joint Expedition to Mersa/Wadi Gawasis of the Università “L’Orientale,” Naples and Boston University

I recently came across an interesting article that suggested string was more important even than the wheel in the chronology of human innovation.

Ferris Jabir in The Long, Knotty, World-Spanning, Story of String reports on the discovery in Egypt of carefully coiled papyrus ropes untouched for 4,000 years, and notes complex textile remains from as far back as 30,000 years ago. Pulling threads together produces string, needed to hang the beads we know of from 300,000 years ago.

“A string can cut, choke, and trip; it can also link, bandage, and reel. String makes it possible to sew, to shoot an arrow, to strum a chord. It’s difficult to think of an aspect of human culture that is not laced through with some form of string or rope; it has helped us develop shelter, clothing, agriculture, weaponry, art, mathematics, and oral hygiene. Without string, our ancestors could not have domesticated horses and cattle or efficiently plowed the earth to grow crops. If not for rope, the great stone monuments of the world—Stonehenge, the Pyramids at Giza, the moai of Easter Island—would still be recumbent.”

Jabir goes on to emphasize the impossibility of maritime navigation (and thus human expansion) without string and rope.

“It is no exaggeration to say that from the invention of sailing through the late 18th century, the economic prosperity, scientific progress, and military success of most nations around the globe fundamentally depended on string and rope. For much of this time, there were no major revolutions in sailing technology. Instead, there were elaborations and restructurings of an ancient template: a roughly crescent wooden vessel equipped with at least one mast and sail, and webbed with plenty of rigging. 

He notes how many of our standard items and resources today as based ultimately on string:

“We still wear shoes laced with string. Our clothes, sheets, curtains, carpets, and tablecloths are all woven from thread. Our phones, computers, toasters, blenders, and TVs still largely depend on bundles of wire transporting electrons. Above our heads, power lines, phone lines, and fiber-optic cables sling from one utility pole to another. More than a million kilometers of undersea cables tie the continents together—the submerged ligaments of global telecommunications.”

The essay concludes by considering the social and symbolic aspects of string and rope:

“For the Indigenous peoples of the Andes, string was its own mathematical language … String and rope are stitched into the English language, into longstanding idioms—learn the ropes, spin a yarn, hang by a thread—and even in the way we talk about relatively modern inventions: to describe the internet, we speak of websites, links, and threads … According to a popular Sudanese myth, a rope once united heaven and Earth, until a mischievous hyena severed it, ushering death into the world. In Greek mythology, the three Moirai, or Fates, spin, measure, and cut threads representing every mortal’s life.”

Well worth the read.