Archaeologists once thought that 12,000-year-old stone spear tips and arrowheads with fluting—a central channel of chipped-away material used to bind them to a shaft—were a uniquely American invention. But around the turn of the new millennium, researchers discovered 8,000-year-old fluted stone tools at several sites on the Arabian Peninsula.
“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,” says co-author Michael Petraglia, an anthropologist at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, in a statement. “This is then a clear and excellent example of cultural convergence or independent invention in human history.”
Petraglia and his colleagues examined tools from Manayzah in Yemen and Ad-Dahariz in Oman, as well as examples from across the Americas, according to Brooks Hays of United Press International (UPI).
“We recognized this technique as ... probably the most famous of the prehistoric techniques used in the American continent,” lead author Remy Crassard, archaeologist at the French Center for Archaeology and Social Sciences, tells UPI. “It took us little time to recognize it, but it took us more time to understand why fluting was present in Arabia.”
In the Americas, the fluted stones were fashioned to facilitate hafting—the process of fastening an arrowhead or spear tip to a wooden shaft. But as the researchers write in the journal PLOS One, the Arabian fluted points don’t appear to have been crafted with hafting in mind.
These stones’ fluting is mainly found toward the tip of their points, per Haaretz. Producing the fluted shards would have required masterful abilities in chipping away flakes of stone—a technique called knapping.
To investigate how the tools might have been made, the team recruited a master flintknapper. When fluting was added to the mix, the researchers found that even this expert broke many of the points he was attempting to shape.
“He made hundreds of attempts to learn how to do this,” says co-author Joy McCorriston, an anthropologist at Ohio State University, in a statement. “It is difficult and a flintknapper breaks a lot of these points trying to learn how to do it right.”
Given the costly loss of materials that producing fluted points likely entailed, as well as the fact that the Arabian tools’ fluting was in the wrong location for hafting, the researchers propose a less practical explanation: As Crassard tells UPI, “We tried to argue that it was more related to a form of ‘bravado’ or display of skill” than a purely functional purpose.
Speaking with Haaretz, Crassard adds that the finely crafted objects may have played a “sociocultural role,” in that the flashy fabrication demonstrated “this person being part of a group who can then show to other groups their very special skills. It’s a whole virtuous circle of social connections.”
But Metin Eren, an anthropologist at Kent State University who wasn’t involved in the research, tells Sedeer el-Showk of Nature Middle East that because the study didn’t include functional tests, the researchers can’t be certain the Arabian fluting didn’t entail some practical advantage.
Eren also doesn’t see the proposed explanations of fluting found in Arabia and the Americas as mutually exclusive. He says, “It’s important to emphasize that fluting could be both functional and symbolic or a skill demonstration at the same time.”