The Stone Age Revisited: Unearthing Neolithic Mysteries in the Arabian Desert

Re Fit of a Grinding Stone From Jebel Oraf

A new study sheds light on the Neolithic lifestyle in northern Arabia, revealing through grinding tool analysis the complex food preparation and potential for a broader Neolithic rock art culture than previously known. Above is a re-fit of a grinding stone from Jebel Oraf. Credit: Ceri Shipton

In the past few years, research has shown that the currently dry area of northern Arabia used to be significantly more lush and verdant, offering early human societies in the Neolithic era ample water and wildlife resources. However, the current dryness of this area results in the minimal preservation of organic materials, posing challenges in piecing together the lifestyle of Neolithic inhabitants.

Now, in a new study published in the journal PLOS ONEresearchers from the Max Planck Institute of Geoanthropology, the National Research Council of Italy, Institute of Heritage Science (CNR ISPC), and University College London present a use-wear analysis of grinding tools recovered from Jebel Oraf in the Nefud desert of Saudi Arabia, revealing new insights into this little-understood chapter of the human story. Use-wear analysis shows that grinding tools were used for the processing of bone, pigment, and plants, and were sometimes re-used for different purposes during their life span, before finally being broken up and placed on hearths.

Microscopic Insights: Use-Wear Patterns

In the new study, researchers use high-powered microscopes to compare use-wear patterns on the archaeological tools with those on experimental tools. In experiments, the grinding of grains, other plants, bone or pigment produces distinctive macro- and micro-traces on the tools’ used surface, including fractures, edge rounding of individual grains, leveled areas, striations, and different types of polish. These distinctive traces were also identified on the Neolithic grinding tools, allowing the scientists to determine which materials were being processed. 

Although faunal remains have previously revealed that meat was cooked and consumed at Jebel Oraf, wear patterns indicate that meat and bones were first processed on grindstones, revealing the possibility that bones were broken to access bone marrow.

The Role of Grinding Tools in Neolithic Life

Grinding tools were also used to process plants. While there is no evidence for domesticated grains in northern Arabia in this period, the authors argue that wild plants were ground and perhaps baked into simple breads.

“The hearths where we found the grinding tools were extremely short-lived, and people may have been very mobile – breads would have made a good and easily transportable food for them,” says Maria Guagnin, a researcher at the Max Planck Institute of Geoanthropology and one of the study’s lead authors.

The researchers also found evidence of pigment processing, which they argue may be linked to Neolithic paintings. Their findings reveal that pigment was ground and processed on a much larger scale than previously assumed, suggesting there may have been more painted Neolithic rock art than the few surviving panels suggest.

“It is clear grinding tools were important for the Neolithic occupants of Jebel Oraf. Many were heavily used, and some even had holes in them that suggest they were transported. That means people carried heavy grinding tools with them and their functionality must have been an important element in daily life,” says Giulio Lucarini of the National Research Council of Italy, the study’s other lead author.

This type of analysis has only rarely been applied to archaeological materials from the Arabian peninsula but can provide important information on the manufacture, use, and re-use of grinding tools, which in turn provides insight into the subsistence, economy, and art of the people who produced them.

Reference: “Plant, pigment, and bone processing in the Neolithic of northern Arabia–New evidence from Use-wear analysis of grinding tools at Jebel Oraf” by Giulio Lucarini, Maria Guagnin, Ceri Shipton, Anita Radini, Abdullah M. Alsharekh and Michael Petraglia, 4 October 2023, PLOS ONE.
DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0291085

Researchers involved in this study work in close partnership with the Saudi Ministry of Culture. Additional partners include King Saud University and key institutions in the United Kingdom, Ireland and Australia.

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