25 November 2020
Ancient Arabian arrowheads demonstrated skill
Published online 6 August 2020
8,000-year-old Arabian arrowheads could have been designed to show off technical skill.
Humans living in Arabia and the Americas thousands of years ago independently invented an advanced technique for carving projectile points that may have been used for different purposes.
The technique, known as fluting, involves removing long, flat flakes from projectile tips like arrowheads and spear points. It was discovered more than a century ago that fluting was practiced by ancient humans in the Americas, but there has been little evidence of it elsewhere.
An international team of researchers found fluted points uncovered during excavations in Yemen and Oman dated to the Neolithic period, some 8,000 years ago. Fluted points in the Americas are thousands of years older. Their age, together with the paucity of fluting at other sites, has led the researchers to conclude that the technique was independently invented in Arabia.
The team asked an expert to try different fluting techniques to understand how it was done. This showed that fluting requires a high degree of skill that would have required apprenticeship and regular practice. “Fluting a point risks breaking the whole piece, which would be a waste of time and precious high-quality material,” says lead author Rémy Crassard of France’s Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique. This implies that Neolithic communities must have been willing to make this investment, which would make sense if fluting improved the projectiles. The team argues that this was true of American fluting, which was done at the base of the projectile and might have helped with attaching the haft. However, Arabian fluting was done mainly at the tips, so they argue it was primarily a demonstration of technical skill.
Metin Eren, an anthropologist at Kent University who wasn’t involved in the research, points out that the study didn’t include functional tests, so it’s premature to conclude that Arabian fluting didn’t confer an advantage. Eren also argues that some of the fluting in the Americas may have been for non-functional reasons. “It’s important to emphasize that fluting could be both functional and symbolic or a skill demonstration at the same time,” he says.
Crassard hopes this work will draw attention to the specific prehistoric traditions in Arabia. “The region is still poorly explored. Each time on the field is another occasion for making fantastic discoveries.”
Crassard, R. et al. Fluted-point technology in Neolithic Arabia: An independent invention far from the Americas. PLOS ONE https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0236314 (2020).