Fluted stone tools have been flummoxing archaeologists since their discovery a century ago in North America, and the more recent revelation in the late 20th century that fluted tools were also made in southern Arabia. There are however substantial differences between the paleo-American and prehistoric Arabian forms of fluting, including in their timing.
Now a new paper published in PLOS One suggests the prehistoric Arabian and American fluted tools also differed in purpose, and persuasively suggests that this is a case of convergent evolution in stone technology. While the paleo-American fluted tools were likely used to hunt, at least at first, the manufacture of this difficult technology in Arabia may have had to do with status and show.
First of all, what is fluting? The technique consists of gouging channels in a stone tool, from the base toward the tip in the American ones, or from the tip downward in the case of tools found in southern Arabia, including at the Manayzah rock shelter in Yemen, and Ad-Dahariz, Oman. The flute-shaped gouges create concavities in the face of the weapon.
For decades fluting had been considered unique to the so-called "Clovis culture", which dates roughly from 13,000 to 10,000 years ago. (Clovis is named for a site in New Mexico where iconic fluted points were found amid mammoth bones.) Fluting was "the first truly American invention," Phys.org put it.
Well, it seems that it was also a truly southern Arabian invention too, executed there 8,000 years to 7,000 ago and discovered in recent years, because nobody's suggesting that paleo-Indians were traveling to Arabia or vice versa.
How many fluted tools have been found in Arabia isn't clear but it seems, a couple of hundred, lead author Rémy Crassard, of the French National Center for Scientific Research, estimates: this wasn't some slip of the knapping stone. This is a striking case of technological convergence, archaeologists agree.
Why might fluted tools have been found only in Yemen and Oman, nowhere else in Arabia? "Our main hypothesis would be that these people would have developed there own manufacture techniques and cultures, without having so much influence from other parts of the neighboring regions," Crassard tells Haaretz. "This is observed through the fluting technique, but also other aspects such as other types of stone tools, the absence of pottery too, and a very well adapted way of life to their environment."
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Despite their differences, both the North America and Arabian techniques can fairly be called fluting, argue Crassard, Michael Petraglia from the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, and archaeologists and anthropologists from France, the United States, Australia and Kuwait in the Plos One paper.
The fluted American tools, at least the original Clovis ones, seem to have served as spear points and were probably used to kill the last mammoths and other toothsome megafauna.
The actual Clovis culture lasted only around 500 to 1,000 years; it was followed by the Folsom, Cumberland, Barnes and other North America cultures which also arose and passed on quite rapidly. Altogether these early groups lasted perhaps some 3,000 years. Possibly their rapid rise and fall had to do with difficulty transiting from being colonizers of unoccupied space – requiring new adaptations and behaviors – to being settlers, suggests anthropologist Dr. Metin Eren of Kent State University, a Clovis expert who was not involved in the Arabian research.
More to the point, the original Clovis-culture inventors of fluting may have passed it on to their immediate descendants, who passed it on, et cetera. Or, given the differences between fluting patterns in paleo-North America – perhaps the technology emerged more than once just in the context of the New World, as well as in Arabia some millennia after the Clovis and post-Clovis cultures had disappeared, says Eren.
He warmly applauds the discussion in the new paper by Cressard et al of convergent evolution in the case of the North American and Arabian fluted tools.
“In just the last couple of years we have learned that convergence in stone tools is so much more common than we thought,” Eren tells Haaretz: “For production reasons and mechanical reasons and physical reasons and functional reasons, people were reinventing the tools over and over again throughout the entire Stone Age and after. We’re all the same species and all pretty smart and come to the same solutions when facing similar problems.”
Examples of convergence beyond fluted tools include the Levallois knapping technique named for a site in France, which emerged in the Old World perhaps as long as half a million years ago – and seems to have been rebirthed in Clovis tools, despite separation by continents and several hundred thousand years. Completely different people were performing the same technique in vastly different times and places. Actually, fluting could be seen as a subset of Levallois, Eren suggests. “What to do to achieve a successful flute is very similar to what do to get a successful Levallois flake,” he says.
Other examples of convergence in tool technology include serrating on the edges of stone knives and similar types of hide scraping tools, Eren adds.
No question about it, fluting is a huge pain and has been estimated to result in the breakage of one out of every four or five projectile points in the process, which begs the question of why anybody in their right mind would do it. The payoff has to be commensurately valuable.
So how utile were the fluted tools anyway? Ostensibly removing a chunk from either side of a projectile’s base, as was done in the Americas, would make it more brittle. But Eren and his colleagues demonstrated that although fluting tools from the base is tedious and tricky and about one in four or five the tool shatters in the process – which must have been frustrating – thinning the base actually makes the stone point more shock-absorbent.
Yes, the paleo-Indians were putting shock absorbers on their spears.
“Think of a car crashing into something. The front end crumples, protecting the people inside. It’s a shock absorber,” Eren explains.
Now if one stabs a mammoth with a great big spear that has a fluted spear point, it turns out that the fluted base “crumples” a bit, absorbing stress and sparing the sharpened point. Not quite like one’s car, he hastens to clarify – tiny bits of stone chip off the fluted base, yet remain inside the haft. The end result is a better, more utile spear. The end.
Over in Arabia, the fluting was from the tip and could get very elaborate – possibly requiring manufacture by a master crafter, Cressard says (some of the later North American examples were also extremely elaborate). That suggests that the Arabian and later American fluted points were made as a sheer display of knapping skills; that they played a “sociocultural role.”
Such specialized knapping is "a way to display someone's skills, 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," Cressard suggests.
He and the team point out that at Ad-Dahariz, Oman they found similar fluted and unfluted points which could suggest that the unfluted ones had a functional use and the fluted ones didn't.
It is still possible that the Arabian fluted tips were used as arrowheads, Cressard and the team suggest, noting that knocking bits off from the tip downward made them lighter. For sure the points weren’t fluted for the sake of hafting since the gouges were from their tip, not their base. But absent a clear practical function, Cressard et al postulate a cultural role for the colorful, intricately carved points. They may have been manufactured as a display of skill and/or status – you strangle a bull, I knap an extraordinary point without breaking it.
“A potentially wasteful display of expertise, fluting may nonetheless signal another expertise: prowess in hunting game while defending one’s own territory or herd,” the team writes. “There was care lavished on delicate tangs and futile fluting” – which demonstrated great individual skill but conferred little adaptive advantage in the physical requirements of hunting or defense.
In any case Cressard and the team plan future use-wear analysis which will hopefully shed light on the function the Arabian points really served.
Meanwhile, Eren agrees that the function in prehistoric Arabia may well have been to show off, as may also have been the case in some of the more elaborate post-Clovis fluted offerings.
“In Clovis it seems very clear that it [fluting] was functional. In later cultures, when it becomes much more elaborate, we are not yet sure if it was functional or symbolic,” he says. He adds that they haven’t yet tested the post-Clovis North American points to see how well they penetrate prey; if they don’t, that would strongly indicate a cultural context too.
Asked if the more elaborate North American tips might have been used as arrowheads, Eren points out that the bow and arrow may have arisen in South Africa some 70,000 years ago, but only reached the Americas, or was reinvented there, between 3,000 to 1,000 years ago – a very late arrival and well after all the Clovis-related cultures were long gone. Spears, however, they definitely had.