Saturday, June 3, 2023

‘Puzzling’ rings from ancient humans posed mystery for a century — until now

Link to Yahoo article

Archaeologists dig up many types of artefacts in their studies. Sometimes it reminds me of going to an auction at a farm where you might see old farming or kitchen tools no longer in use today. You often have to guess what they are used for and how they operate. At least with semi-modern things like that, there are people to ask or the internet to search by posting a picture of the object. Archaeologists have less at their disposal, usually just someone else's findings to relate to, or their own reasoning power.

For the past century or more, people have found some curious U-shaped objects of shell, stone, or bone, often with elaborate decorations carved into them. They sit in museums with speculations that they might be simple decorations, or clothing fasteners, or even hair ties. Nobody has been quite sure. Some of these recently showed up in France.

Ring ornaments from French studies

Similar things were found in Central or South America over the years, but the French report was the first time they'd been found in Europe. In 1962, Gordon Ekholm described the ones in the Americas as finger loops for an atlatl. (There's a word for your Scrabble game! It means a holder for arrows or short spears, something you use instead of a bow to throw them at high speeds.)

Ekholm's drawings of spear holders (5 cm = 2 inches)

An atlatl is a tube with a groove in it, plus a blunt end where the feathered part of the arrow sits. You grip the atlatl with the loaded spear or arrow and make a throwing motion, but keep the atlatl in your hand a little like casting a fishing rod.

How to use an atlatl to launch a spear (pic from Wikipedia)

Knowledge of atlatls has been around for many years by their users. In 1896,  Frank Hamilton Cushing published one of the first papers "Exploration of Ancient Key Dwellers' Remains on the Gulf Coast of Florida" in which he described many things he'd dug up related to these dart throwers. Actually, other people accidentally found them in garden muck and shell banks of their coastal homes, in canals, and in burial mounds, and he took advantage of the situation to explore further when they were brought to a local museum. Among the artefacts, he discovered two throwing weapons with one or two holes carved into them for finger grips. When he compared these to other items found in Central and South America, he figured he knew what they were.

Throwing tools from Cushing's 1896 study

In a 2023 paper, rather than calling the French rings decorations or clothing adornments, Justin Garnett and Frederic Sellet from the University of Kansas took a page from spearthrower technology to determine that the French finds might be handles that are attached to atlatls. Instead of drilling the finger holes into the atlatl body like in Cushing's discovery, the hunter or warrior could perhaps strap these pieces of bone, stone, or shell onto it and give them a strong grip. Garnett and Sellet made their own models, and the photos below show how a one- or two-finger type could be held, with the weapon between the index finger, middle finger, and thumb. The ones in France were all made of antler from a deer species. 

Garnett and Sellet's models (from their 2023 paper)

The two Kansas researchers made several types of models based on research and speculation. See the types they devised below.

Models made by Garnett and Sellet

Archaeologists like Garnett and Sellett felt there were several reasons these objects were part of atlatls, aside from their similarity to ones found in the Americas.

  • They were the correct size for human fingers.
  • They were found among spear-throwing materials.
  • They were worn down in a way that suggested how they were held.

You might call this Stone Age technology, and you wouldn't be far off. The Paleolithic period, also called the Old Stone Age, runs from about 3 million years ago to 50,000 years ago. It was closer to the 50,000 year-old period that scientists started finding tools for fishing, projectile points, engraving tools, sharp knife blades, and drilling and piercing tools. Although the U-rings from France have not been carbon-dated, bones in the area were, and they showed ages ranging from 16,000 to 25,000 years ago. They also found bone flute fragments that suggested the hunters there even used whistles to call animals that they were stalking.

Watch a demonstration of an atlatl on this short YouTube clip.

Here's another video showing the actual primitive tech used to make the dart and atlatl (without finger grips) and to practice throwing at a target.

For a description of atlatls from Aztec ruins on display in the British Museum, read this paper with some cool photos.

‘Puzzling’ rings from ancient humans posed mystery for a century — until now Link to Yahoo article Archaeologists dig up many types of artef...