Oldest Known Pair of Pants Unearthed

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The world’s first-known pants were recently excavated from tombs in western China, reports a new study.

The pants, which date from 3,000 to 3,300 years ago, are tattered, but are surprisingly stylish, combining attractive form with function. Made out of wool, the trousers feature straight-fitting legs and a wide crotch.

The pants were discovered in an excavation led by archaeologists Ulrike Beck and Mayke Wagner of the German Archaeological Institute in Berlin. The trousers, and related finds, are described in the journal Quaternary International.

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This new paper definitely supports the idea that trousers were invented for horse riding by mobile pastoralists, and that trousers were brought to the Tarim Basin by horse-riding peoples,” linguist and China authority Victor Mair of the University of Pennsylvania told Bruce Bower of Science News.

Bower writes that before pants were invented, Europeans wore gowns, robes, tunic, togas or a three-piece ensemble. The latter, for men, consisted of a loincloth and individual leggings. Early leather leggings found in places like Switzerland suggest that, as for the Chinese pants, people back in the day were interested in both style and function.

Mair theorizes that horseback riding began at least 3,400 years ago, just before pants likely came on to the scene. One can imagine that trying to ride with two separate leggings and a loincloth was uncomfortable.

Wool seems to have been the preferred fabric for pants for quite a while, as Mair previously helped to find a 2,600-year-old mummy who was buried wearing wool, burgundy trousers.

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The latest finds were discovered in the Yanghai graveyard at China’s Tarim Basin. Nomadic herders of Central Asia inhabited this region when the now-ancient pants were new.

The Yanghai man who wore the trousers, plus another similarly clad male nearby, died at about 40. The researchers suspect that the men were both warriors and herders. They were found buried with objects such as a decorated leather bridle, a wooden horse bit, a battle-ax, a leather bracer for arm protection, a whip, a decorated horsetail, a bow sheath and a bow.

As for their pants, Science News reports they were “sewn together from three pieces of brown-colored wool cloth, one piece for each leg and an insert for the crotch. The tailoring involved no cutting: Pant sections were shaped on a loom in the final size. Finished pants included side slits, strings for fastening at the waist and woven designs on the legs.”

Given the complexity and sophistication of this construction, pants were likely invented some time beforehand. We just haven’t found those earlier pairs, or they’ve since eroded away.

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Archaeologist Margarita Gleba of University College London thinks people might have started to ride horses as early as 4,000 years ago, so there could be ancient trousers out there dating to this period.

For now, however, Beck and Wagner’s team can lay claim to the oldest known pair of pants. The moment when pants were invented, as they write, was “a ground-breaking achievement in the history of cloth making.”

Photo: Ancient wool trousers. Credit: M. Wagner, German Archaeological Institute

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