New insights into Neolithic lifestyle in Northern Arabia from use-wear analysis of grinding tools

Recent research, as detailed in a recent publication in PLOS ONE, sheds light on the ancient lifestyle of Neolithic human populations in the once-lush northern Arabian region, now arid. The study, conducted by researchers from the Max Planck Institute of Geoanthropology, the National Research Council of Italy, Institute of Heritage Science (CNR ISPC), and University College London, focuses on grinding tools discovered in the Nefud desert of Saudi Arabia at Jebel Oraf.

Use-wear analysis of these grinding tools reveals intriguing insights into the Neolithic way of life. These tools were found to have been used for various purposes, including processing bone, pigment, and plants. Remarkably, some tools were repurposed for different tasks during their lifespan before ultimately being broken and placed on hearths.

The research team employed high-powered microscopes to compare the wear patterns on the archaeological tools with those on experimental tools used in grinding grains, plants, bone, or pigment. This analysis identified distinctive macro- and micro-traces on the tools, such as fractures, rounded edges, leveled areas, striations, and different types of polish. These traces provided valuable information about the materials processed with these tools.

While previous faunal evidence indicated the consumption of meat at Jebel Oraf, the wear patterns on the grinding tools suggest that meat and bones were initially processed on grindstones, potentially to access bone marrow. Additionally, these tools were used to process plants, even though domesticated grains were absent in northern Arabia during this period. The researchers suggest that wild plants may have been ground and possibly baked into simple bread, offering a portable food source for mobile populations.

The study also uncovered evidence of pigment processing, possibly linked to Neolithic paintings. This finding suggests that pigment was ground and processed on a larger scale than previously thought, hinting at the existence of more Neolithic rock art than the surviving panels indicate.

The researchers emphasize the importance of grinding tools in the daily life of Neolithic inhabitants at Jebel Oraf. Some tools exhibited significant wear and even had holes, indicating they were transported. This suggests that people carried these heavy grinding tools with them, underscoring their crucial role in daily activities.

This type of analysis, although rarely applied to archaeological materials from the Arabian peninsula, provides valuable insights into the production, use, and reuse of grinding tools. These insights, in turn, offer a deeper understanding of the subsistence, economy, and artistic expressions of the ancient people who crafted and used these tools. The research collaboration includes partners from the Saudi Ministry of Culture, King Saud University, and various institutions in the United Kingdom, Ireland, and Australia.

Source: Max Planck Society

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