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BY 4.0 license Open Access Published by De Gruyter Open Access January 26, 2023

A 2D Geometric Morphometric Assessment of Chrono-Cultural Trends in Osseous Barbed Points of the European Final Palaeolithic and Early Mesolithic

  • Kalliroi Tsirintoulaki EMAIL logo , David Nicolas Matzig and Felix Riede
From the journal Open Archaeology


Studies on prehistoric osseous barbed points have relied heavily on typology in linking presumed types to broader techno-complexes, and for making chronological inferences. The accumulation of both new finds and of radiocarbon dates obtained directly on such artefacts, however, has revealed that (i) shape variability defies neat typological divisions, and that (ii) chronological inferences based on typology often fail. To further query these issues and to better understand the design choices and cultural evolutionary dynamics within this artefact class, we present a 2D open-outline geometric morphometric analysis of 50 directly dated Late Pleistocene and Early Holocene osseous barbed points primarily from northern and western Europe. The results indicate that (a) different components (tip, base, and barbs) of these artefacts were subject to varying design constraints and that (b) there is no clear-cut distinction between Final Palaeolithic and Mesolithic point traditions. Different techno-functional components evolved at various rates while specimens assigned to the same type and/or techno-complex are only occasionally morphologically similar. The results reflect a relatively low level of normativity for this artefact class and likely a repeated convergence on similar design elements. We propose that interpretations linked to cultural dynamics, individual craft agency, and repeated convergence on locally optimal designs may offer more satisfying avenues for thinking about the barbed points of this period.

1 Introduction

Barbed osseous points were integral to the tool-kit of European Upper Palaeolithic and Mesolithic foragers. While barbed points appear sporadically in the archaeological record from very early on (Pante, de la Torre, d’Errico, Njau, & Blumenschine, 2020), they became more common during the latter stages of the Pleistocene and especially during the Magdalenian where barbed points assume specific chrono-cultural relevance (Pétillon, 2008). This class of artefacts was also widespread during the Mesolithic (e.g. Clark, 1954; Elliott & Little, 2018; Hartz, Lübke, & Groß, 2019) where barbed points are also often argued to serve as artefactual “type fossil” of the Early Holocene (EH) occupation of Europe (Elliott & Little, 2018).

Since the pioneering studies of Grahame Clark, typological schemata have played a key role in the classification and analysis of such osseous objects (Clark, 1936; Galiński, 2013; Julien, 1982; Weniger, 1995, 2000). Numerous finds have been dated based on typological inference and related to certain broader techno-complexes such as the Penknife Groups, Maglemosian, the Kunda culture, etc. (Britnell, 1984; Clark & Godwin, 1956; Larsson, Sjöström, & Nilsson, 2019; Sheldrick, Lowe, & Reynier, 1997; Verhart, 1990). Yet, several recent lines of enquiry have raised critical questions about the robusticity of such inferences. First, recent excavations at Star Carr, a site that yielded numerous barbed osseous points, underscore the insufficiency of classifying these artefacts on existing taxonomies (Elliott & Little, 2018). Second, an increasing number of radiocarbon (14C) dates has been directly obtained on barbed points highlighting just how unreliable the chronological inferences based on typology can be. For example, the redating of a barbed point from Sproughton, that was typologically assigned to the Mesolithic, revealed that the specimen dates back to the Late Pleistocene (LP) (Jacobi, Higham, & Lord, 2009). Similarly, a newly obtained 14C date on a uniserial barbed point from Orzysz (Poland) resulted in an age range of 8105–7935 cal BP, much younger than expected based on established typologies (Philippsen et al., 2019). Complementing this work Orłowska & Osipowicz (2021) have recently also demonstrated that typology is a decidedly problematic indicator of age in a substantial additional sample of LP/EH barbed points from Poland. Third, theoretically motivated work on Late Palaeolithic barbed points by Dobres (2000) has made visible the craft signatures of individual makers and how they mould and in part defy normative typological categories.

Typological classification in general has been subject to renewed critical attention in Palaeolithic studies recently (e.g. Ivanovaitė, Serwatka, Hoggard, Sauer, & Riede, 2020; Reynolds & Riede, 2019; Shea, 2014; Wilkins, 2020). Together, these studies highlight that typological classifications often fail to account for the morphological variability in prehistoric material, and that understanding this variability linked to both specific idiosyncrasies and broad trends is central to interpretations of past demography, social networks, and cultural transmission.

Stimulated by these convergent critiques, we collected morphological information from a sample of 50 published and directly dated barbed osseous points from the final stages of the LP and into the EH (16–9 ka BP). Our main objective is to reconstruct the cultural evolution of barbed points over time; in contrast to typological reasoning or a strict focus on individual agency, cultural evolutionary theory offers an explicit model for understanding material culture change over time (Mesoudi & O’Brien, 2009; Riede, Hoggard, & Shennan, 2019; Shennan, 2008). By decomposing each point into distinct design elements, and focusing on the variability within each of these elements, we explore to what extent barbed point design aligns with the presumed techno-complexes, typologies, and traditional chronological schemas of this period (Cziesla & Pettitt, 2003) including the distinction between Palaeolithic and Mesolithic point traditions. We also query how cultural dynamics of diversification and convergence are expressed in barbed point design over time (cf. Manninen et al., 2021) and whether we can identify individual craft agency or regional idiosyncrasies.

We seek to answer these questions through an evolutionary perspective employing cultural transmission models (Eerkens & Lipo, 2005; Mesoudi & O’Brien, 2008; Riede et al., 2019; Shennan, 2008, 2020; Tehrani & Riede, 2008; Walsh, Riede, & O’Neill, 2019). Our aim is to understand whether information transmission related to barbed point manufacture took place within the context of more or less conformist social environments (emphasis on social learning, i.e. copying, vs emphasis on individual learning, i.e., experimentation and innovation) (Eerkens & Lipo, 2007), taking also into consideration possible fluctuations of population over time. Cultural transmission concepts have been proven robust in addressing artefact variation both temporally and spatially. To avoid the use of non-consistent criteria for the definition of various Final Palaeolithic and Mesolithic archaeological cultures (Reynolds & Riede, 2019; Sauer & Riede, 2019; Serwatka & Riede, 2016), we employ geometric morphometric (GMM) analysis, that decomposes each barbed point into three functionally distinct modules (tip, barbs, and base). Such approaches have been widely used for the study of lithic artefacts (e.g. Buchanan, O’Brien, & Collard, 2014; Ivanovaitė et al., 2020; Matzig, Hussain, & Riede, 2021; Mesfin, Leplongeon, Pleurdeau, & Borel, 2020; Riede et al., 2019; Serwatka, 2014; Serwatka & Riede, 2016) and ceramics (Selden, 2017; Topi, 2016; Wang & Marwick, 2020). However, GMM has been rarely employed on prehistoric organic artefacts (Doyon, 2019, 2020; Manríquez, Salazar, Figueroa, Hartz, & Thomas, 2017) and never on barbed points. In interpreting the morphological variation observed in our sample of barbed points, we therefore place the changes and diversity in component shapes in a wider framework that connects artefact variation with patterns and processes of cultural transmission within socio-ecological networks.

2 Materials and Methods

For our GMM analyses, we collected a dataset comprising the photographs or drawings and their associated metadata of 50 barbed points made out of bone and antler from 34 sites in northern, central, and western Europe (Latvia, Sweden, Denmark, England, The Netherlands, Poland, Germany, France, and Spain) that date within the LP and EH (Figure 1, Table 2). The sample mainly consists of fragmented artefacts with only 11 specimens preserved in their entirety (Table 1). The selected specimens have been directly dated by accelerator mass spectrometry (AMS) to the LP or EH (Table 2) and date into the timeframe of ∼16–9 ka cal BP. When more than one AMS date was available for a given specific specimen, we chose the most recently conducted dating. We re-calibrated all collected 14C dates to calendar years BP (1950, at 95.4% confidence and rounded to the nearest ten) in OxCal v.4.3.2 (Bronk Ramsey, 2017) employing the recent IntCal20 atmospheric calibration curve (Reimer et al., 2020).

Figure 1 
               Map illustrating the sites mentioned in the text. The labels are linked to the ID of the individual specimens (Table 1), different colours indicate the geological period and shapes, if given, the typological classification.
Figure 1

Map illustrating the sites mentioned in the text. The labels are linked to the ID of the individual specimens (Table 1), different colours indicate the geological period and shapes, if given, the typological classification.

Table 1

Preservation state of the morphological units of each specimen

Specimen vernacular Label Complete Barbs
Tip Base
Aggarp Mose AGG_1 1 1 5
Abelskov ABL_1 1 6
Rönneholms Mose RNM_1 1 5
Ved Halleby A VHA_1 1 3
Tunebjerg Ost TNO_1 1
Wyk Föhr WKF_1 1 1 19
Skalbjerg SKL_1 1 2
Skellingsted Mose SKM_1 1 19
Vallensgard Mose VLM_1 1 1 2
Seedorf SEE_1 1 36
Rendsburg REN_1 1 36
Travenhorst TRV_2 1 23
Groß Rönnau GRR_1 1 1 32
Travenhorst TRV_1 1 18
Mölln MLL_1 1 13
Woltersdorf WOL_1 1 1 14
Ageröds Mosse AGM_1 1 24
Lake Lubans LKL_2 1 4
Lake Lubans LKL_4 1 4
Sandlyng Mose SNM_1 1 2
Lake Lubans LKL_1 1 6
Lake Lubans LKL_3 1 10
Victoria Cave VCV_1 1 4
Leman and Ower Banks LOB_1 1 1 18
Hoek van Holland HVH_1 1 2
Maasvlakte MSV_4 2
Bützsee BTZ_3 1 6
Earls Barton ERB_1 9
Maasvlakte MSV_2 1 1 5
Maasvlakte MSV_1 1 7
Maasvlakte MSV_3 11
Bützsee BTZ_4 1 15
Bützsee BTZ_2 1 2
Bützsee BTZ_5 1 18
Bützsee BTZ_1 1 1 5
Dinslaken DIN_1 1 1 11
Dinslaken DIN_2 1 6
Sproughton SPR_1 1 2
Bergkamen BER_1 1 1 2
Sproughton SPR_2 1 17
Węgliny WEG_1 1 3
Bois Ragot BRT_1 1 1 2
Saint Michel STM_1 1 3
Castillo CST_1 1 3
Isturitz IST_1 1 n/a
Morin MOR_2 1
Morin MOR_1 2
Plantade PLT_1 1
Isturitz IST_2 1
Espalungue ESP_1 3
SUM 50 30 22

Note: Specimen IST_1 shows only broken barbs and base; only the tip was integrated to the analysis. Specimens (N complete = 11) listed in italics show complete bases, tips, and barbs.

Table 2

Provenance and dating of the LP/EH barbed points included in this study

Site name Country ID Lab. Code 14C age (BP) SD Age in cal (BP) Material Techno-complex Type Reference
<57° N
Aggarp Mose Sweden AGG_1 OxA-2789 8360 90 9534–9038 Bone Maglemosian Type7/Skee-type1 Andersen & Petersen, 2009
Abelskov Denmark ABL_1 AAR-6266 8570 65 9694–9454 Bone Maglemosian Type 8/Atypical base1 Andersen & Petersen, 2009
Rönneholms Mose Sweden RNM_1 OxA-2792 8610 90 9895–9458 Bone Maglemosian Type 5/Vallensgard-type1 Andersen & Petersen, 2009
Ved Halleby A Denmark VHA_1 KA-6333 8610 90 9895–9458 No information Maglemosian Type 4/Torning-type1 Andersen & Petersen, 2009
Tunebjerg Ost Denmark TNO_1 AAR-8800 9050 40 10260–10160 No information Maglemosian Type 3/Trunderup-type1 Andersen & Petersen, 2009
Wyk Föhr Germany WKF_1 KIA-53547 9115 60 10405–10200 Bone No information Duvensee2 Hartz et al., 2019
Skalbjerg Denmark SKL_1 AAR-8796 9250 60 10569–10253 Bone Maglemosian No information Andersen & Petersen, 2009
Skellingsted Mose Sweden SKM_1 OxA-38342 9261 46 10571–10278 Bone Maglemosian No information Jensen et al., 2020
Vallensgard Mose Denmark VLM_1 AAR-9297 9280 65 10650–10252 Antler?**** Maglemosian Type 5/Vallensgard-type1 Andersen & Petersen, 2009
Seedorf Germany SEE_1 KIA-53541 9280 40 10578–10295 Bone No information Duvensee2 Hartz et al., 2019
Rendsburg Germany REN_1 KIA-53540 9415 45 10758–10510 Bone No information Duvensee2 Hartz et al., 2019
Travenhorst Germany TRV_2 KIA-53542 9420 45 10988–10510 Bone No information Duvensee2 Hartz et al., 2019
Groß Rönnau Germany GRR_1 KIA-53544 9455 40 11063–10573 Bone No information Duvensee2 Hartz et al., 2019
Travenhorst Germany TRV_1 KIA-53546 9465 45 11068–10572 Bone No information Duvensee2 Hartz et al., 2019
Mölln Germany MLL_1 KIA-52810 9521 43 11078–10604 Bone No information Duvensee2 Hartz et al., 2019
Woltersdorf Germany WOL_1 KIA-53545 9525 45 11084–10605 Bone No information Kunda-type 62 Hartz et al., 2019
Ageröds Mosse Sweden AGM_1 Ua-46486 9546 76 11166–10603 Bone No information Type 13 Larsson et al., 2019
Lake Lubans Latvia LKL_2 KIA-46260 9780 38 11256–11166 Bone Ahrensburgian* Type I4 Meadows, Eriksen, Zagorska, Dreves, & Simpson, 2014
Lake Lubans Latvia LKL_4 KIA-46262 9884 43 11400–11203 Bone Ahrensburgian* Type I4 Meadows et al., 2014
Sandlyng Mose Denmark SNM_1 AAR-9296 9905 65 11683–11201 No information Ahrensburgian Type 1/Sandlyng-type1 Andersen & Petersen, 2009
Lake Lubans Latvia LKL_1 KIA-46261 9918 73 11689–11205 Bone Ahrensburgian* Type I4 Meadows et al., 2014
Lake Lubans Latvia LKL_3 KIA-46259 9993 44 11697–11268 Antler?**** Ahrensburgian* Type II4 Meadows et al., 2014
Victoria Cave England VCV_1 OxA-2607 10810 100 13054–12619 Antler No information No information Lord, O’Connor, Siebrandt, & Jacobi, 2007 (date),
Lord & Howard, 2013 (image)
Leman and Ower Banks North Sea LOB_1 OxA_1950 11740 150 14013–13312 Antler Maglemosian** Kunda-type 62/Duvensee 2 *** Cziesla & Pettitt, 2003 (date),Clark & Godwin, 1956 (image)
<53° N
Hoek van Holland Netherlands HVH_1 GrM-19226 8260 40 9417–9033 Bone No information No information Dekker et al., 2021
Maasvlakte Netherlands MSV_4 GrM-19229 8295 40 9432–9134 Human bone No information No information Dekker et al., 2021
Bützsee Germany BTZ_3 OxA-8744 9195 65 10555–10234 Bone**** No information Pritzerbe2 Cziesla & Pettitt, 2003
Earls Barton England ERB_1 OxA-500 9240 160 11074–9960 Antler No information No information Cook & Barton, 1986
Maasvlakte Netherlands MSV_2 GrM-19219 9415 40 10752–10513 Bone No information No information Dekker et al., 2021
Maasvlakte Netherlands MSV_1 GrM-19218 9495 40 11070–10587 Antler No information No information Dekker et al., 2021
Maasvlakte Netherlands MSV_3 GrM-19230 9505 40 11072–10595 Bone No information No information Dekker et al., 2021
Bützsee Germany BTZ_4 OxA-8726 9505 80 11141–10574 Bone?**** No information Duvensee2 Cziesla & Pettitt, 2003
Bützsee Germany BTZ_2 OxA-8841 10020 60 11802–11272 No information Ahrensburgian Havel 12B2 Cziesla & Pettitt, 2003
Bützsee Germany BTZ_5 OxA-8743 10185 65 12426–11404 No information No information Duvensee2 Cziesla & Pettitt, 2003
Bützsee Germany BTZ_1 OxA-8742 10480 75 12682–12059 Antler?**** Ahrensburgian Havel 12B2 Cziesla & Pettitt, 2003
Dinslaken Germany DIN_1 Hv 10790 105 12996–12498 Bone No information Duvensee2 Cziesla & Pettitt, 2003 (date)
Street, 1995 (image)
Dinslaken Germany DIN_2 Hv 10790 105 12996–12498 Bone No information Duvensee2 Cziesla & Pettitt, 2003 (date),
Street, 1995 (image)
Sproughton England SPR_1 OxA-15219 10960 50 13060–12757 Antler Maglemosian** No information Jacobi et al., 2009
Bergkamen Germany BER_1 MAMS-11813 11107 42 13104–12909 Bone Federmesser No information Baales, Birker, & Mucha, 2017
Sproughton England SPR_2 OxA-14943 11485 60 13484–13192 Bone Maglemosian** Duvensee2 Jacobi et al., 2009
Węgliny Poland WEG_1 Poz-10674 12120 60 14129–13803 Bone Federmesser No information Cziesla & Masojć, 2007
<49° N
Bois Ragot France BRT_1 OxA-2754 11640 55 13600–13355 Antler Azilian Class 15 Dujardin & Oberlin, 2005 (date),
Christensen & Chollet, 2005 (image)
Saint Michel France STM_1 OxA-28088 11965 55 14036–13614 Antler Magdalenian H26 Barshay-Szmidt et al., 2016 (date)
Pétillon et al., 2015 (image)
Castillo Spain CST_1 OxA-972 12390 130 15027–14070 Antler Magdalenian Cantabrian7 Barandiarán, 1988
Isturitz France IST_1 OxA-28085 12440 55 14951–14285 Antler Magdalenian H26 Barshay-Szmidt et al., 2016 (date)
Pétillon, 2016 (image)
Morin France MOR_2 OxA-26670 12470 60 14992–14305 Antler Magdalenian H16 Barshay-Szmidt et al., 2016
Morin France MOR_1 OxA-26667 12705 55 15308–14976 Antler Magdalenian H26 Barshay-Szmidt et al., 2016 (date)
Pétillon, 2016 (image)
Plantade France PLT_1 GifA-96326 12740 120 15614–14604 Antler Magdalenian H26 Tisnerat-Laborde, Valladas, & Ladier, 1997
Isturitz France IST_2 OxA-19833 13095 55 15889–15511 Antler Magdalenian H16 Szmidt, Pétillon, Cattelain, Normand, & Schwab, 2009 (date)
Pétillon, 2016 (image)
Espalungue France ESP_1 OxA-28086 13120 55 15935–15558 Antler Magdalenian H16 Pétillon et al., 2015

Note: Superscripted numbers indicate previous typological assessment of these artefacts. 1. The southern Scandinavian typology of single-row large-barbed harpoons (Andersen & Petersen, 2009); 2. Typology of Mesolithic Northern European notched and barbed points (Clark, 1936); 3. Schematic types of leister points from central Scania (Larsson et al., 2019); 4. Typology of harpoons from the East Baltic (Zagorska, 2006); 5. Subdivision of Azilian harpoons (Thompson, 1954); 6. Magdalenian barbed points (pointes barbelées magdaléniennes) with one (H1) or two (H2) rows of barbs (Julien, 1982); 7. Subtype of Magdalenian barbed points with perforated base distributed along the coast of Cantabrian Spain (Weniger, 1987).

* The affiliation with the Ahrensburgian techno-complex should be viewed with caution.

** These specimens have been previously linked to the Maglemosian techno-complex (e.g. Bonsall & Smith, 1990; Clark, 1936).

*** The specimen from Leman and Ower Banks has been classified to the Duvensee type by different authors (i.e. Cziesla, 1999).

**** The probable raw material as stated by the authors (Andersen & Petersen, 2009; Cziesla & Pettitt, 2003; Meadows et al., 2014).

Most of the specimens have been classified as belonging to a specific techno-complex and/or type by the original investigators, while others are stray finds or derive from unstratified contexts. The specimens that lack contextual information or assessments regarding both type and techno-complex have nonetheless been incorporated in our GMM analysis. Their dates and shapes still contribute to our investigation of whether there is a salient link between specific shapes and chronological patterns. To study the potential spatio-temporal patterning in our sample, we first divided the specimens into three groups by latitude (Table 2), which also broadly reflects the chronological ordering of most of the specimens.

2.1 Sample Provenance

Within each geographic group, specimens are ordered by their 14C dates from youngest to oldest. The first group includes all specimens found at the highest latitude, which for our sample is between 57°N and 53°N and corresponds to present-day Sweden, Denmark, northern Germany, northern England, and Latvia. The second group encompasses specimens found between 53°N and 50°N (The Netherlands, Poland, central Germany, and southern England) and the final group includes all specimens found below 49°N (France and Spain), and includes the oldest specimens in the present sample.

2.2 Shape Analysis

To assess the shape changes in barbed osseous points from the LP and EH, we employed 2D open-outline GMM. This allows us to conduct a comparative analysis that circumvents existing typologies whose respective classification criteria differ by investigator, region, and research tradition. For our data collection, we were agnostic in regard to labels such as harpoons, leisters, fine-barbed points, or toothed/notched points (e.g. Hartz et al., 2019; Jensen et al., 2020; Street et al., 2001), which often combine functional and morphological aspects.

Following earlier scholars such as Julien (1982), Langley (2014), and Weniger (1995) we split all barbed point images into three components (Figure 2): the tip (distal/penetrative), barbs (medial/prey retention), and base (proximal/attachment). The images were manually prepared in GIMP 2.10.22 ( in a similar manner as described by Matzig et al. (2021). Then, the three components from each artefact were cut out and saved as .jpg files (N barbs = 445, N tips = 30, N bases = 22). The selection of these techno-functional components to evaluate shape variation aligns with functional considerations coming together in the total tool shape: the attachment to the shaft, the penetration of the point through the prey’s hide, and the weapon’s ability to remain lodged following penetration. These different functional requirements are expected to have exerted differential shape constraints and selective pressures. The distal end of the point would likely have been subjected to fairly uniform functional demands (cf. Friis-Hansen, 1990) and been more exposed to projectile impact damage. Any given variation may thus primarily capture recurring cycles of damage and repair (Doyon, 2020; Langley, 2014). Recent studies focused on lithic armatures have argued that the base holds most information linked to various cultural transmission mechanisms (O’Brien & Bentley, 2020). By the same token, many typologies employ barb morphology as one of the principal classification criteria (Clark, 1936; Larsson et al., 2019; Meadows et al., 2014), alluding to the manifold ways in which barbs can be manufactured and shaped. Furthermore, many barbed points in our sample have more than one barb, allowing us to not only compare between-object but also within-object variability.

Figure 2 
                  Division of barbed point techno-functional units (after Julien, 1982; Langley, 2014; Weniger, 1995).
Figure 2

Division of barbed point techno-functional units (after Julien, 1982; Langley, 2014; Weniger, 1995).

2.3 Classification and Comparison

All analyses were conducted in R 4.2.1 (R Core Team, 2022). The outlineR package (Matzig, 2021) and a custom R script were used to prepare the images and extract the open outlines in Momocs’ opn format (Bonhomme, Picq, Gaucherel, & Claude, 2014) for all three artefact components separately. The open outlines of the tips, barbs, and bases, each were separately subjected to discrete cosine transforms, and then to a principal component analysis (PCA). As we are not, in this analysis, interested in the main body of the points, we consider open-outline analysis to be most appropriate since it provides us with the possibility to analyse the shape of each techno-functional component separately (cf. Leplongeon, Ménard, Bonhomme, & Bortolini, 2020). Visualisations were created using ggplot2 (Wickham, 2016) and ggtree (Yu, Smith, Zhu, Guan, & Lam, 2017).

In addition, we performed hierarchical cluster analysis to further explore potential patterns of interrelations within our three subsamples, and to identify potentially meaningful groupings. Divisive hierarchical clustering was applied to tips, barbs, and bases separately using Ward’s method on a Euclidean distance matrix derived from all principal component (PC) scores for each of the three datasets. Using the R package NbClust (Charrad, Ghazzali, Boiteau, & Niknafs, 2014) we calculated silhouette plots to assess the optimal number of clusters for each derived dendrogram.

For the barb subsample, we further explored their variability through disparity measurements for all barbs combined (N artefacts = 49 and N barbs = 445) between the LP and EH, as well as across major chronozones and latitudinal zones. Disparity is defined here as the amount of total morphological variation, measured as the sum of variances within the PCA, and offers insights about changing levels of normativity and experimentation. We calculated disparity using the dispRity R package (Guillerme & Cooper, 2018).

3 Results

In the following, we report the main outcomes of the GMM analysis carried out for each techno-functional component (tip, barbs, and base) of our barbed point sample. We present the results of the PCA for tips, barbs, and bases and the associated cluster analyses. Concerning the barbs, we additionally summarise the outcome of the disparity analysis linked to this component.

3.1 Tips

A total of 30 specimens in our analysis preserved a complete tip for morphometric analysis. Regarding the PCA, 99.3% of this dataset’s total variation is explained by the first two PCs. PC1 (88.6%) reflects the width, mainly of the proximal part of the tip, PC2 (10.7%) captures the angle of convergence towards the tip, while PC3 corresponds to the symmetry of the tip (Figure 3). The dendrogram indicates that, overall, shape variation is limited concerning this component (Figure 4). This is especially evident in clusters 1 and 2 that represent more than 60% of the total sample. In addition, many specimens from both periods are grouped together regardless of their typological classification.

Figure 3 
                  (a) PCA plot of barbed point tip shape. The point shapes contain the information about their original typological attribution. The colour coding corresponds to the archaeological period into which they fall. (b) Scree plot showing the amount of variation captured by the first three principal components. (c) The associated shape variation captured by each PC.
Figure 3

(a) PCA plot of barbed point tip shape. The point shapes contain the information about their original typological attribution. The colour coding corresponds to the archaeological period into which they fall. (b) Scree plot showing the amount of variation captured by the first three principal components. (c) The associated shape variation captured by each PC.

Figure 4 
                  Dendrogram (Ward’s method) based on the pairwise Euclidean distance matrix derived from the PCA scores of the tip dataset. The mean shapes of the clusters are placed on the right. The dendrogram’s tip shapes contain the information about their original typological attribution. The colour coding of the names corresponds to the archaeological period into which they fall.
Figure 4

Dendrogram (Ward’s method) based on the pairwise Euclidean distance matrix derived from the PCA scores of the tip dataset. The mean shapes of the clusters are placed on the right. The dendrogram’s tip shapes contain the information about their original typological attribution. The colour coding of the names corresponds to the archaeological period into which they fall.

3.2 Barbs

For the 445 barbs from the 49 artefacts studied, the greatest shape variation is captured by PC1 (52.2%), differentiating between wide and rounded (Figure 5), and narrow and slanted barbs. PC2 (30.9%) represents the same general tendencies (differentiating between roundedness and skewness), however, now with reversed proportions (narrow and rounded vs wide and skew). Regarding the overall shape space mapped in the scatterplot of the first two PCs, the LP barbs occupy the upper right quadrant, which reflects represents wide and slanted barbs, whereas the EH specimens are strongly represented in the areas describing more rounded barbs without overhang.

Figure 5 
                  (a) PCA plot of barbed point barb shape. The point shapes contain the information about their original typological attribution. The colour coding corresponds to the archaeological period into which they fall. (b) Scree plot showing the amount of variation captured by the first seven principal components. (c) The associated shape variation captured by each PC.
Figure 5

(a) PCA plot of barbed point barb shape. The point shapes contain the information about their original typological attribution. The colour coding corresponds to the archaeological period into which they fall. (b) Scree plot showing the amount of variation captured by the first seven principal components. (c) The associated shape variation captured by each PC.

When comparing the disparity between LP and EH barbs, Figure 6 shows that LP specimens display a drastically higher diversity in barb morphology compared to the EH. This stark contrast between the LP and EH turns out to be more gradual when comparing the barb disparity separated into time bins of higher resolution based on the re-calibrated dates (Figure 7). For further interpretation, we disreg the five specimens older than the Bølling/Allerød Complex as they consist of only eight barbs in total. Barb disparity declines from the Bølling/Allerød Complex across the Younger Dryas Complex to the Preboreal. The lowest disparity is reached in the Boreal.

Figure 6 
                  Barb disparity for the LP and EH.
Figure 6

Barb disparity for the LP and EH.

Figure 7 
                  Barb disparity across the major chronozones under consideration.
Figure 7

Barb disparity across the major chronozones under consideration.

Comparing barb disparity across the three latitudinal zones (Figure 8), it is evident that the sum of variances is lowest in the most northern region (57° N–53° N), followed by the most southern one (<49° N). The highest disparity was measured in our central region between 49° N and <53° N. Do note that the Northern European artefacts not only represent the clear majority in terms of number of artefacts in this dataset, but also in terms of digitised barbs per artefact.

Figure 8 
                  Disparity of all barbs for each latitudinal zone.
Figure 8

Disparity of all barbs for each latitudinal zone.

The PCA indicates (cf. Figure 5) that specimens which date to the same period and derive from the same site display considerable internal variety of barb designs. The same also applies at regional levels since specimens from the same wider region only occasionally display pronounced morphological similarity. Moreover, we observe that while a substantial number of Duvensee-type specimens overlap (i.e. they are characterised by low overall variability) they are morphologically similar to specimens assigned to types I and II from Latvia, unclassified specimens from the Netherlands, and to a lesser extent to some southern Scandinavian artefacts (Andersen & Petersen, 2009; Meadows et al., 2014).

3.3 Bases

The total shape variability of the 22 artefact bases available is to 96.4% described by PC1, which differentiates between needle-shaped forms with a high degree of symmetry along their central axis, and shorter but very wide shapes with an asymmetrical bulbous feature (shield). PC2, capturing only 1.4% of the dataset’s total variation, describes the extent of this particular base feature (Figure 9). The dendrogram derived from all PC scores using Ward’s method (Figure 10) captures these features as well. Clusters 2, 4, and 7 contain artefacts which could be described as needle-shaped and which were located as outliers on the lower left of the PCA plot. The other extreme shapes are captured in clusters 1 and 6. These are the bases with a distinctive and asymmetrical bulbous feature. Cluster 5 includes two artefacts with an almost equal length to width ratio, and cluster 3 – containing the majority of specimens – includes long but wider shapes with high lateral symmetry.

Figure 9 
                  (a) PCA of barbed point base shape; the dating and, if given, typological classification of each specimen is listed. (b) Scree plot showing the amount of variation captured by the first three principal components. (c) The shape spectrum of the bases analysed in this study.
Figure 9

(a) PCA of barbed point base shape; the dating and, if given, typological classification of each specimen is listed. (b) Scree plot showing the amount of variation captured by the first three principal components. (c) The shape spectrum of the bases analysed in this study.

Figure 10 
                  Dendrogram (Ward’s method) based on the pairwise Euclidean distance matrix derived from the PCA scores of the base dataset. The mean shapes of the clusters are placed on the right. The dendrogram’s base shapes contain information about their original typological attribution. The colour coding of the names corresponds to the archaeological period into which they fall.
Figure 10

Dendrogram (Ward’s method) based on the pairwise Euclidean distance matrix derived from the PCA scores of the base dataset. The mean shapes of the clusters are placed on the right. The dendrogram’s base shapes contain information about their original typological attribution. The colour coding of the names corresponds to the archaeological period into which they fall.

The dendrogram in Figure 10 shows that specimens which have previously been assigned to a specific techno-complex and/or type rarely cluster together. This is most clearly reflected in cluster 3. In particular, those LP specimens classified as belonging to the Magdalenian share design principles with EH specimens thought to belong to the Maglemosian and Ahrensburgian. Yet, some that have been assigned to the same techno-complex based on earlier assessments do not share the same typological assignment. Parochial divisions such as the one for Southern Scandinavian types derived exclusively on the base shape of large-barbed uniserial points (Andersen & Petersen, 2009) are therefore not strongly supported by this morphometric analysis.

4 Discussion

Our aim has been to exploratively interrogate the cultural evolution of LP and EH barbed osseous points through a quantitative shape analysis. In doing so, and to obtain maximum chronological control, we have focused on only directly dated artefacts. That said, the LP specimens cover a ∼4000 year time-span and contain three times fewer artefacts when compared to the EH subset. Moreover, the recalibrated dates indicate that n = 11 EH specimens – a third of the entire sample – date to a rather narrow window of 11000–10500 cal BP, while four fall into the similarly narrow range of 9500–9000 cal BP. The EH dataset is therefore rather focused chronologically, not a contiguous series. Based on functional and design considerations, each artefact was divided into modular components reflecting the tripartite demands of efficient penetration (tip), prey retention (barbs), and robust hafting (base). Our analysis suggests a design diversity that defies rigid typological schemata. Specimens dating to the Late Palaeolithic and Early Mesolithic, respectively, occasionally cluster in distinct groups, hinting at rather variable or ephemeral barbed point traditions within each period.

By the same token, the diversity of designs observed even in our limited sample also underlines the idiosyncratic and individualistic aspects related to point manufacture (Dobres, 1995). Indeed, most specimens combine different design elements; no clear linear trajectory of change exists in the total sample, or regionally. We suggest that this combination of design choice indexes complex cultural transmission processes that speak against simple whole-object classification. This is most clearly reflected in the design of the barbs and bases that seem to constitute the most evolutionary informative units, whereas tip design is likely to have been subject to the narrowest functional constraints. Evidently, the various techno-functional components making up each artefact evolved asynchronously (cf. Doyon, 2019; Riede, 2008).

Moreover, our analysis indicates that, overall, shape variation between barbed points decreased from the LP to the EH. While the low population densities (e.g. Kretschmer, 2012; Lundström, Peters, & Riede, 2021) and fragile social networks (e.g. Riede, 2014) of the Late Palaeolithic may have limited the cultural transmission of cumulatively adaptive designs (cf. Derex & Mesoudi, 2020; Fernández-López de Pablo et al., 2022), the observed decrease in barbed point shape variability during the Mesolithic may relate to the general increase in population driven by the global increase in net primary productivity (e.g. Bocquet-Appel, Demars, Noiret, & Dobrowsky, 2005; Schmidt et al., 2021). Furthermore, a greater degree of experimentation with different designs is expected to occur in periods of socio-ecological uncertainty (Fitzhugh, 2001) such as the Pleistocene.

Barbs here form the elements of greatest interest: Regional and local barbed point typologies grounded in barb morphology (Clark, 1936; Galiński, 2013) should be treated with caution and certainly qualified through detailed analysis of barb shape variability. The results indicate a high level of design diversity that is especially evident among LP specimens compared to those dating to the EH. In our view, the overall diversity signifies relatively low levels of normativity within this craft domain, or that barbs positioned differently along the shaft followed consistently varying design constraints; the latter possibility in particular remains to be systematically evaluated. Since strongly conformist social transmission would suppress such variability (Eerkens & Lipo, 2005; Kohler, VanBuskirk, & Ruscavage-Barz, 2004), barbed points from the LP and EH in Europe appear to have been a medium also for craft experimentation and the expression of idiosyncratic preferences, perhaps even a medium for social negotiations (cf. Dobres, 1995, 2000).

4.1 Convergence on Optimal Designs

With reference to established frameworks of cultural transmission (Eerkens & Lipo, 2007) and given the overall relatively limited morphological variation in the sample at hand, one may infer that a certain degree of biased transmission characterised barbed points, leading to relatively normative and conservative evolutionary trajectories. Yet, as recently pointed out by Manninen et al. (2021) specifically for slotted bone points of the LP/EH, it is not straightforward to distinguish between biased transmission dynamics within one macro-evolutionary tradition and repeated convergence amongst different communities of practice (Jochim, 2018; O’Brien, Buchanan, & Eren, 2018; O’Brien & Bentley, 2020). Barbed points are functional objects, and different design constraints acted on the hafting, prey retention, and penetration components. As carefully and laboriously crafted implements (for instance, David, 2006), they are made to minimise failure and its associated costs (Bleed, 1986; Eerkens, 1998) in the context of seasonal hunting of more or less predictable game animals (Torrence, 1989). Such reliable technologies are thought to be favoured for specialised activities (Bleed, 1986). In the case of the barbed points of the Late Palaeolithic and Early Mesolithic, this may have been the hunting of marine mammals or swimming land mammals (Cziesla, 2007; Petersen, 2009), although their primary use context may also have shifted over time.

Barbed points are only very occasionally directly associated with the prey hunted (e.g. Pettitt, Rowley-Conwy, Montgomery, & Richards, 2017) making it difficult to confidently infer their specific use. The convergence on shapes of considerable similarity in certain times and places may relate to the repeated but also only periodic formation of less mobile populations living at higher densities pursuing less variable hunting strategies. This aligns with an observed standardisation of manufacturing techniques in periods such as the Early Mesolithic in southern Scandinavia (David, 2003, 2006, 2009), although the recent study by Jensen et al. (2020) also cautions against all too rigid models of cultural continuity in the EH of this region.

4.2 Individual Craft Agency

In contrast to processes leading to standardised point designs, some of the variability in barb design may also be interpreted in terms of individual agency. Stylistic variation is considered to be the prima facie artisanal hallmark (Whittaker, 1987). Arguably, “unlike flint products, items made of bone and antler are much more expressive of clan tradition and individual personality of the maker” (Galiński, 2013, p. 93). This could be especially the case for barbed osseous points that constitute a highly curated class of artefacts (Riede, 2008). These implements are characterised by complex manufacturing phases, a rather time-consuming chaîne opératoire (Elliott & Milner, 2010; Langley, 2014), long-term use and often careful curation and maintenance (Langley, 2015).

Artefact variability is generated by individuals (Foulds, 2010). Assuming that “individual signatures are expressed both intentionally and accidentally in artifact variation” (Whittaker, 1987, p. 476), we view individual craft agency as the conscious/unconscious actions of the manufacturers and we interpret our results based on the individual practices that arise in the context of specific social transmission processes (Eerkens & Lipo, 2005). We propose that the evident inter- and intra-variability in barb design could partially reflect crafters with varying perceptual abilities, motor skills, and intentions, parameters that contribute to the shaping of unconscious idiosyncratic traits. More importantly, idiosyncratic signatures could be generated from the different decisions made by individuals in relation to how barbs should be shaped and maintained. Studies on Magdalenian organic artefacts from France, that included barbed points, in some cases revealed intra-site variability in barb manufacture techniques and barb designs, while the techniques employed for the former were specific to particular sites (Dobres, 1995). In this light, some of the variability seen in our sample could indeed mark the presence of idiosyncratic individual choices. Thus, depending on how many agents were involved in the manufacture and/or curation processes, diversified barb designs might capture the cumulative variation generated by different individual crafters, or the personal expression of one agent over time.

When comparing the three techno-functional units, barbs form the elements that allow a greater level of personal experimentation and creativity, since the base and especially the tip entail more design constraints tied to their function. Such a level of experimentation could have only taken place within low conformist social environments. In line with previous studies of French Magdalenian osseous artefacts stressing their technical and stylistic variability (Dobres, 1995), we also suggest that barb variation could at least partially represent the expression of individual craft agency.

5 Conclusion

Artefacts of bone and antler were key components of prehistoric toolkits. Barbed points and harpoons made of osseous raw materials constitute a particularly vital technological innovation for past forager groups. While relatively rare, these objects have also played an important role as artefactual index fossils thought to register cultural evolutionary changes. GMM analysis forms a powerful approach for the study of chorological variation in artefacts. It has previously been applied to Palaeolithic osseous projectile points (Doyon, 2019, 2020), yet ours is the first study that employs 2D open-outline GMM analysis on directly dated barbed points.

In line with many GMM studies on both lithics and ceramics, our results suggest caution in using typological approaches. These can evidently not adequately capture the morphological variability seen in the barbed osseous points of the LP and EH, thus placing any chronological, cultural, or agentive inferences on an uncertain footing. At the same time, the sample size of the analysis presented here is also limited and our results are therefore preliminary at best. Future studies could profitably include both directly dated specimens as well as those not associated with secure chronological information. Equally, morphometric analyses of barbed points would facilitate novel functional understandings of this artefact class via so-called finite element analysis that can model strains and stresses on object design in silico (e.g. O’Higgins et al., 2011). At the same time, analytical methods combining morphological and technological data may offer novel insights on craft traditions. An extended sample size would facilitate a more robust evaluation of their status as artefactual type fossil of LP and EH foragers, or the degree to which these artefacts can be used to understand individual craft choices. Moreover, future research should consider in more detail the usage of, for instance, modelling or experimental approaches and the cultural processes that led to such a complex blending of morphological traits in this artefact class.


K.T. is grateful to Aarhus University and Dr Felix Riede, director of the CLIOARCH project, in the frame of which this research was conducted.

  1. Funding information: K.T. thanks the Erasmus + programme for the financial support provided for traineeships by the European Commission. F.R. and D.N.M. gratefully acknowledge funding from the European Research Council (Consolidator Grant agreement 817564 under the Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme).

  2. Author contributions: We applied the SDC approach for the sequence of authors. K.T.: collection, analysis, interpretation of data, writing – original draft, table, and figure production. D.N.M: methodology, code development, programming, figure production, and writing – critical review and editing. F.R.: conceptualisation, supervision, methodology, and writing – critical review and editing.

  3. Conflict of interest: We declare that we have no conflict of interest.

  4. Data availability statement: The dataset and code generated during and/or analysed during the current study are available on Zenodo (


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Received: 2022-01-23
Revised: 2022-10-24
Accepted: 2022-11-10
Published Online: 2023-01-26

© 2023 the author(s), published by De Gruyter

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