Recre­at­ing old weapons for new dis­cov­er­ies of hu­man his­tory

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - WORLD -

OHIO, United States — Metin Eren wasn’t sat­is­fied just dig­ging up an­cient ar­row­heads to learn about the past. He wanted to use them for their in­tended pur­pose.

But shoot­ing and shat­ter­ing price­less mil­len­nia-old tips is out of the question, so in­stead, the ar­chae­ol­o­gist chips repli­cas of the stoneage weapons by hand.

“We can break ‘em and throw ‘em,” he says. “Our imag­i­na­tion is the limit.”

The 34-year-old pro­fes­sor at Kent State Univer­sity, in Ohio in the United States, spe­cial­izes in ex­per­i­men­tal ar­chae­ol­ogy recre­at­ing an­cient pots, knives and ar­rows. By test­ing the repli­cas in ways im­pos­si­ble with the orig­i­nals, ar­chae­ol­o­gists study how tools found in ar­chae­o­log­i­cal digs were ac­tu­ally used.

“The stuff that we find, it’s just stuff,” says Brian An­drews, an ar­chae­ol­o­gist at Rogers State Univer­sity. “Stuff ’s cool, but we’re not in­ter­ested in stuff for the sake of it­self. We’re in­ter­ested in the hu­man be­hav­iors that went into mak­ing it.”

Eren’s ex­per­i­ments fo­cus on mak­ing sense of an­cient weapons lit­tered across the Amer­i­cas, il­lus­trat­ing how hu­mans first set­tled the West­ern Hemi­sphere: through care­ful prepa­ra­tion, long-term plan­ning, and re­fined tech­nol­ogy.

“Even though it’s the Stone Age, they’re still think­ing in a very mod­ern way,” Eren says.

Al­ready he has cracked one long­time mys­tery. In the early 1900s, ar­chae­ol­o­gists found un­usu­ally shaped ar­row­heads in North Amer­ica, with grooves carved from the base halfway to the head’s tip. They first ap­peared over 13,000 years ago and spread rapidly across the con­ti­nent, but ex­isted nowhere else. Re­searchers were puz­zled why the grooves were carved, with spec­u­la­tion run­ning from re­li­gious rit­u­als to mere dec­o­ra­tion.

That’s where ex­per­i­men­tal ar­chae­ol­ogy came in. By test­ing the pres­sure at which the ar­row­heads would crack us­ing a crusher and com­puter mod­els, Eren dis­cov­ered the grooves act as a shock ab­sorber. It al­lows the ar­row­head’s thinned base to crum­ple slightly and ab­sorb en­ergy upon the ar­row’s im­pact, mak­ing the head less likely to break.

Ar­chae­ol­o­gists call it the “first truly Amer­i­can in­ven­tion”.

On a Thurs­day morn­ing, Eren gin­gerly ex­am­ined a sliver of obsidian. Such blades are “sharp to the mol­e­cule,” he said, and one nearly sliced off his left pinkie in graduate school.

In his hand, he’s hold­ing a piece of the puz­zle of how hu­mans came to rule the world. By refin­ing their weapons, an­cient Amer­i­cans learned how to adapt to all sorts of con­di­tions.

“They knew they were go­ing into un­known ter­ri­tory, and be­cause of that they ac­tu­ally pre­pared ex­tremely well tech­no­log­i­cally,” Eren said. “Un­der­stand­ing this process of col­o­niza­tion is im­por­tant to un­der­stand­ing how we are to­day.”


Metin Eren, an ar­chae­ol­o­gist at Kent State Univer­sity, ex­am­ines a model of an an­cient ar­row in Kent, Ohio, in the US. Eren runs a lab­o­ra­tory which makes repli­cas that al­low re­searchers to learn about en­gi­neer­ing tech­niques of the first na­tive Amer­i­cans.

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