Alongside the remains of two men who were recently excavated from tombs in western China, archaeologists also discovered fragments of what appear to be the earliest known trousers. The men, who were nomadic herders, lived between 3,300 and 3,000 years ago, making their trousers the oldest known examples.
With straight-fitting legs and a wide crotch, the ancient wool trousers resemble modern riding trousers, says a team led by archaeologists Ulrike Beck and Mayke Wagner of the German Archaeological Institute in Berlin. The discoveries, uncovered in the Yanghai graveyard in China’s Tarim Basin, support previous work suggesting that nomadic herders in Central Asia invented trousers to provide bodily protection and freedom of movement for horseback journeys and mounted warfare. Previously, Europeans and Asians wore gowns, robes, tunics, togas or — as observed on the 5,300-year-old body of Ötzi the Iceman — a three-piece combination of loincloth and individual leggings.
A dry climate and hot summers helped preserve human corpses, clothing and other organic material in the Tarim Basin. More than 500 tombs have been excavated in a graveyard there since the early 1970s. Earlier research on mummies from several Tarim Basin sites identified a 2,600-year-old individual known as Cherchen Man who wore burgundy trousers, probably made of wool.
The two trouser-wearing men entombed at Yanghai were roughly forty years old and had probably been warriors as well as herders, the investigators say. One man was buried with a decorated leather bridle, a wooden horse bit, a battle-axe and a leather bracer for arm protection. Among objects placed with the other body were a whip, a decorated horse tail, a bow sheath and a bow. Each pair of trousers was 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.