In Ancient Arabia, Some Tools Were Created Just to Show Off

Neolithic channel flakes from what is now the Saudi Arabian peninsula. (Crassard et al. / PLOS One)

(CN) — By analyzing weapons roughly 8,000 years old from southern Arabia, archaeologists have discovered that toolmaking was not only done out of necessity, but also was a means to exhibit artistic talent — in short, to show off.

In a new study published Wednesday in the journal PLOS One, a team of scientists from the French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS), The Ohio State University and the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History analyzed a variety of stone weapons dating back to the Neolithic period, excavated from the archaeological sites Manayzah in Yemen and Ad-Dahariz in Oman.

The team examined a variety of spearheads and arrowheads, and found they were no ordinary tools. The weapons had been inscribed with artistic skill the authors suggest was a means to show off the creators’ craftsmanship.

This was accomplished through a technique adopted by the Arabian people of this period known as fluting, an intricate process of creating projectile points. First invented by even earlier people in the Great Plains of North America, the Arabian people made this technique their own by using it as a means to boast their technical talent rather than to just to improve the functionality of the tools.

“It was like a peacock’s feathers — it was all for appearance. They used fluting to show just how skilled they were at using this very difficult technology, with its heightened risk of failure,” said co-author Joy McCorriston, a professor of anthropology at Ohio State, in a statement accompanying the study.

“These fluted points were, until recently, unknown elsewhere on the planet,” lead author Rémy Crassard of CNRS said in the statement, noting the significant discovery of fluting outside North America. “This was until the early 2000s, when the first isolated examples of these objects were recognized in Yemen, and more recently in Oman.”

Fluted points from North and South America. (Crassard, et al. / PLOS One)

Archaeologists say that 1 in 5 of these points would break during the process, and it would have taken up to 30 minutes or more to create one, but a good point could be extremely reliable. The researchers suspected, despite the original purpose of this technique, the Arabians created their less effective projectiles with no clear purpose other than to be an art form.

“Fluting involves a highly skilled process of chipping off flakes from a stone to create a distinctive channel. It is difficult and takes much practice to perfect,” said McCorriston. “In North America, almost all fluting on projectile points was done near the base, so that the implement could be attached with string to the arrow or spear shaft. In other words, it had a practical application.”

To get a clearer understanding of why these toolmakers would create such delicate points in this way, the team brought in an expert in flint knapping — the art of carving projectile points closely related to fluting. He set out to make points like the ones excavated and perhaps even to recreate the technique.

“He made hundreds of attempts to learn how to do this. It is difficult and a flintknapper breaks a lot of these points trying to learn how to do it right,” McCorriston said.

After many failed attempts, the authors concluded the only logical reason why these people would invest so much time and energy into these devices without any practical benefit would be to show off one’s talent and skill set. This evidence adds to the large expanse of cultural heritage from Neolithic Saudi Arabia, including over 1,500 examples of rock art and cave drawings.

“Of course, we can’t say for sure, but we think this was a way for skilled toolmakers to signal something to others, perhaps that one is a good hunter, a quick study, or dexterous with one’s hands,” McCorriston said. “It showed one was good at what one did. This could improve one’s social standing in the community.”

The authors also found clear similarities and differences between the techniques from Arabia and North America, which they said was to be expected due to the distance and time separating the two origins.

“Finding the fluted points in Arabia provides one of the best examples of ‘independent invention’ across continents,” said co-author Michael Petraglia of the Max Planck Institute in the statement. 

“Given their age, and the fact that the fluted points from America and Arabia are separated by thousands of kilometers, there is no possible cultural connection between them. This is a clear and excellent example of cultural convergence, or independent invention, in human history,” Petraglia concluded.

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