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Ranged weapons seem like a great idea. You can take down your prey without getting up close and personal, which can be very harmful to your health.

Pictured: Where you don’t want to be
Art: Gleiver Prieto

Despite this apparent advantage, it took a while for ranged weapons to become widespread. Whilst they were first invented 61,000 years ago, archaeologists have found it took them 30,000 years to arrive on the Arabian peninsula1.

For context, that’s about as much time as separates us from Neanderthals.

Why did it take them so long to reach the region? The clue might be in the site where the oldest ranged weapons in Arabia have been found1.

Where were the first ranged weapons in Arabia?

The oldest ranged weapons in the Arabian Peninsula comes from Southern Oman. Specifically, the site of Matafah, which was examined by archaeologist Dr Jeffrey Rose and his colleagues. They found that the oldest layer at the site, dated to between 33 and 30 thousand years ago, contained a series of tiny tools (called microliths if you want to use the fancy science words)1.

Microliths from Matafah1.

Microliths were a big development in our technological evolution (hahaha). They have a large cutting surface but are very lightweight. Although this can be handy for making tools easier to carry around, they really shine when it comes to making ranged weapons2.

After all, slapping a solid stone tip on a spear just makes it hard to throw. But a series of small blades can give the same cutting edge but without compromising the aerodynamics2. No wonder Neanderthals may have stolen this technology from us.

A spear armed with microlithic bladelets.

As such, it should be nor surprise that tools like this remained a favourite human weapon for millennia. In fact, as recently as 7,000 BC people were fighting wars with these things; leaving behind graveyards of people riddled with microliths3.

You should really try and keep microliths on the outside of your spine2.

Why were the first ranged weapons in Arabia?

So, now we’ve pinpointed where the first ranged weapons in the Arabian peninsula were. The obvious question is “why there”? And, by extension, “why then”?

Well, it turns out Matafah is in a very unique place. Being located near the southern coastline of the region, it’s close enough to the Indian Ocean that it receives some monsoon weather. As such, for a few months of the year, the area turns from an arid desert to a cloud forest1. Due to this, the region remains one of the most ecologically diverse places on the peninsula.

The site of Matafah (top) when there isn’t rain and a nearby area when there is (bottom)

All of which would have been even more appealing around the time people started making projectile weapons there. During that period the world was cooling down, culminating in the peak of the last ice age1.

As such, people from around far around may well have been seeking refuge in this area, hoping to hide from the worst of the changing conditions in the verdant cloud forest.

This demographic shift could well be the reason for projectile weapons appearing at this time. Perhaps some of the migrants brought them with them, introducing them to the area. Or maybe so many people being forced to live close together led to conflict, leading to innovations in weaponry1.

I’m sure I don’t have to explain the implications of this for our current circumstances.

References

  1. Rose, J.I., Hilbert, Y.H., Usik, V.I., Marks, A.E., Jaboob, M.M.A., Černý, V., Crassard, R. and Preusser, F., 2019. 30,000-Year-Old Geometric Microliths Reveal Glacial Refugium in Dhofar, Southern Oman. Journal of Paleolithic Archaeology, pp.1-20.
  2. Goldstein, S.T. and Shaffer, C.M., 2017. Experimental and archaeological investigations of backed microlith function among Mid-to-Late Holocene herders in southwestern Kenya. Archaeological and Anthropological Sciences9(8), pp.1767-1788.
  3. Lahr, M.M., Rivera, F., Power, R.K., Mounier, A., Copsey, B., Crivellaro, F., Edung, J.E., Fernandez, J.M., Kiarie, C., Lawrence, J. and Leakey, A., 2016. Inter-group violence among early Holocene hunter-gatherers of West Turkana, Kenya. Nature529(7586), p.394.

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