Archaeologists digging at certain sites in France have unearthed some curious ring-shaped artifacts over the years that seemed to have no clear purpose. Dating back to the Upper Paleolithic period (50,000 to 12,000 years ago), the assumption has been that these rings, which are open at one end, were somehow attached to clothing or worn as ornaments on the body. But a researcher from the University of Kansas has challenged this conclusion, instead arguing that they were spear-thrower grips, attached to ancient weapons and used to give users a better grip.
“They resembled finger loops like those used by some North and South American spear-throwers ,” doctoral candidate in anthropology Justin Garnett said in a University of Kansas press release announcing the publication of the research in an article in the Journal of Paleolithic Archaeology . While the Americas were isolated from Europe tens of thousands of years ago, meaning there couldn’t have been any direct technology transfer, Garnett felt that this resemblance was too strong to be a coincidence and he set out to prove it wasn’t.
A 3D scan of one of the replica Omega-shaped artifacts, believed to have been used as a prehistoric spear-thrower grip. (Justin Garnett & Frederic Sellet / University of Kansas )
Artifacts Identified as Spear-thrower Grips in “Aha Moment”
Archaeologists and anthropologists have long wondered about the purpose of these anomalous artifacts. The rings were made from animal antlers and feature a pair of pointed tabs on opposite sides of the open end of the objects, giving them an appearance similar to the Greek letter Omega (Ω). The rings were approximately 8/10ths of an inch (2 cm) wide, meaning human fingers would have fit snugly through them.
The so-called spear-thrower grips were discovered at three archaeological sites in France: Le Placard Petit, Cloup Barrat, and Cave à Endives. A total of 12 open-ended rings have been recovered so far, and all have been attributed to either the Magdalenian culture (19,000 to 12,000 years ago) or the Badegoulian culture (23,500 to 20,500 years ago).
In the new article , entitled “Exploring the Possible Function of Paleolithic Open Rings as Spear-thrower Finger Loops,” Garnett made a compelling case that the open-ended rings had in fact once been mounted on spear-throwers.
The idea is that users would stick their fingers through the rings of the spear-thrower grip to ensure a firmer hold on the weapon. This would have added more power and control to his movements when whipping the throwing device forward to fling a sharpened spear at a target (presumably an animal being hunted or a human enemy being confronted during a battle).
“If you are familiar with spear-throwers, the shape of [the rings] jumps out at you immediately,” said Garnett, who collaborated with University of Kansas associate professor article with Frederic Sellet in his study. “So it was like an ‘aha moment’ when I saw pictures of these objects in a publication. It was hiding in plain sight.”
Justin Garnett, a doctoral candidate in anthropology at the University of Kansas, during tests using the prehistoric spear-thrower grip. (Justin Garnett & Frederic Sellet / University of Kansas )
Putting the Prehistoric Spear-thrower Grip Theory to the Test
Not content to argue strictly based on logical deduction, Garnett decided to put his theory to the test, literally speaking. Since the originals were much too precious to work with, he fashioned multiple replicas of the rings out of antler, bone and 3D-printed plastic. These rings were then hafted to reconstructions of the spear-throwers ancient peoples were believed to have been using 15,000 years ago.
“I used the 3D ones to get larger sample sizes of specimens so I could test them for comfort,” Garnett explained. “Like how does shape relate to comfort when you’re using these things? But then for the actual experiment, I used elk antler since I was unable to get reindeer antler , which is the material that the originals were made out of.”
To test out his customized spear-throwers, Garnett used a set of powerful darts, modeled after prehistoric versions, that resemble arrows rather than traditional spears. “Most of these darts are designed to be used as hunting weapons , and their ranges are shorter than ones made to throw long distances because they’re heavy enough to inflict damage,” he said. “So with hunting-weight darts, I could throw them 50 to 60 meters.”
This was an impressive performance, adding strength to Garnett’s hypothesis about the true purpose of the ringed loop artifacts. “People are always interested in when a piece of technology first appears. This pushed back the existence of the spear-thrower system by 5,000 to 6,000 years—and this feels significant to me in terms of understanding when things originated,” he stated.
Assuming this conclusion is correct, this means the first spear-thrower users in western Europe during the Upper Paleolithic were the Badegoulians, who lived in France around 20,000 BC. They would have then passed the technology down to the Magdalenians, who in the past were incorrectly credited with inventing the first spear-throwers manufactured in the region.
Reconstructions of how the ring-shaped artifacts could have been used as spear-thrower grips. (Justin Garnett & Frederic Sellet / University of Kansas )
In Archaeology, Open-mindedness is the Best Policy
Justin Garnett acknowledges that the open-ended ring artifacts found at Le Placard Petit, Cloup Barrat and Cave à Endives may not have been spear-thrower grips, at least not exclusively. “It’s a fairly simple shape. It could serve a lot of purposes. It might even be a mistake to assume all 12 of them are the same thing, just simply because they have the same shape,” he said.
Nevertheless, he is convinced his theory offers the most likely explanation. “But on a percentage basis of being right, I’d personally say it’s in the high 90s. They look exactly like what I would expect a spear-thrower finger loop to look like if it were made out of antler. And they come out of digs that also produced other parts of spear-throwers. So it is a tidy explanation borne out by the evidence.”
Garnett has become an expert in ancient projectile technology over the past several years, focusing on the topic in his research. “The most misunderstood aspect of prehistoric weapons systems is that they are unsophisticated or poorly designed and crude,” he noted.
“I think my research has relevance to today’s society because it shows that people all over the world when faced with similar situations do similar things,” stressed Garnett when discussing the spear-thrower grips. “And prehistoric peoples and technologies were sophisticated and complex in ways we might not initially appreciate.”
Garnett’s innovative research and novel conclusions highlight how important it is for archaeologists and anthropologists to keep an open mind when studying artifacts from long-lost, prehistoric cultures. It is normal to make some assumptions, but researchers should be looking to challenge those assumptions all the time, knowing that they might be wrong or might be jumping to conclusions before all the evidence is in.
Top image: Image showing how the ring-shaped artifacts would have been used as spear-thrower grips, using one or two loops. Source: Justin Garnett & Frederic Sellet / University of Kansas
By Nathan Falde