Deciphering the Enigmatic Limestone Spheres of ‘Ubeidiya: Revealing the Enigmas of an Age-Old Enigma

Archaeologists have long been perplexed by the enigmatic limestone spheroids, ancient stone artifacts that date back to the Oldowan era and the Middle Palaeolithic period. The purpose behind their creation has been the subject of intense debate. In a recent development, a collaborative effort between the Computational Archaeology Laboratory at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Tel Hai College, and Rovira i Virgili University aims to unravel the mysteries surrounding these intriguing objects. Their research may shed light on the intentions and skills of early hominins who fashioned these spheroids.

These spheroids, among the most enduring yet least understood archaeological artifacts, have often been considered accidental by-products of stone tool production. However, the team’s research challenges this conventional wisdom. The central question driving this study is whether these spheroids were unintentional by-products or intentionally crafted tools with specific purposes.

To address this question, the researchers applied cutting-edge 3D analysis techniques, including spherical harmonics and surface curvature, to a collection of 150 limestone spheroids from the ‘Ubeidiya archaeological site, dating back approximately 1.4 million years. These methods were developed at the Computational Archaeology Laboratory, under the guidance of Professor Leore Grosman. ‘Ubeidiya is recognized as the earliest known Acheulean site outside of Africa, making it a critical location for investigating early hominin technology evolution.

The research team painstakingly reconstructed the spheroid reduction sequence based on observed trends in scar facets and geometry. Their findings unveiled a remarkable pattern: the spheroids at ‘Ubeidiya were crafted with a deliberate reduction strategy. Contrary to the belief that they were accidental by-products, these spheroids did not become smoother during their manufacture; instead, they became notably more spherical. Achieving this transformation towards a perfect sphere required exceptional knapping skills and a clear preconceived objective.

This discovery challenges existing beliefs about early hominins’ capabilities and their relationship with technology. While Acheulean bifaces have traditionally been seen as the earliest evidence of hominins intentionally creating symmetrical shapes in stone, the intentional production of sphere-like objects at ‘Ubeidiya suggests that early hominins desired and achieved intentional geometry and symmetry in stone crafting. Slightly older spheroids have been found at African sites. If similar intentionality can be demonstrated there, it would represent the oldest evidence of hominins desiring and achieving symmetrical shapes in stone.

The team’s research opens new avenues for comprehending the cognitive abilities and technological achievements of our ancient ancestors. It also raises questions about the purpose and significance of these spheroids in the daily lives of early hominins.

Reference: “The limestone spheroids of ‘Ubeidiya: intentional imposition of symmetric geometry by early hominins?” by Antoine Muller, Deborah Barsky, Robert Sala-Ramos, Gonen Sharon, Stefania Titton, Josep-Maria Vergès, and Leore Grosman, 6 September 2023, Royal Society Open Science. DOI: 10.1098/rsos.230671.

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