Archaeologists have unearthed ancient stone engravings of vast animal traps in Jordan and Saudi Arabia that are possibly the earliest “blueprints” ever discovered.
The engravings, estimated to be about 7,000 to 8,000 years old, are precise plans for nearby structures archaeologists call “desert kites”—converging lines of piled stones that were probably used to drive wild herds of gazelles and antelopes into pits at their corners.
Regardless of the structures’ purpose, the newly found plans show an understanding of the enormous kites—often larger than two football fields—that wouldn’t be equaled for millennia, says Rémy Crassard, an archaeologist at the French National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS) and co-lead author of a study published May 17 in PLOS ONE. Even today, the kites can be fully appreciated only by viewing them from the air.
“The amazing discovery is that the plans are to scale,” Crassard says. They show a sophisticated approach to the kites “constrained by shape, by symmetry and by dimensions,” he adds. “We had no idea that people at that time were able to do that with such accuracy.”
A few architectural plans for buildings and boats were previously known. Most are from ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia and may be up to 7,000 years old. There are also what may be a few rough schematics dating to the Stone Age. But nothing this old and so precise has ever been seen before, the researchers say.
One engraving depicting a kite is carved onto a rock roughly 80 centimeters long and 32 centimeters wide. Archaeologists found it in 2015 in an ancient campsite beside a kite in the Jordanian desert’s Jibal al-Khashabiyeh region.
Seven other nearby kites, on the edge of a plateau that stretches south for more than 20 kilometers, are built to the same pattern: a star-shaped enclosure with pits at its corners and curved “driving lines” to let hunters guide a panicked herd into it, the researchers write in their study.
The piled stones are often little more than lines on the desert floor, and Crassard notes that gazelles and antelopes would have been able to easily leap over them. But they were visible enough that the animals would have shied away from them and run into the pits, he says. And each animal would have provided one person with enough meat for weeks, the researchers estimate.
The surrounding landscape is now stony desert, but it was greener when the kites were made and still has a sublime beauty, says archaeologist Wael Abu-Azizeh of the South Eastern Badia Archaeological Project in Jordan, another of the study’s lead authors.
“The plateau borders a paleolake, a natural depression that collected water in remote times, and it overlooks this towards the horizon,” he says.
A second engraving, found in 2015 during a survey of the Jebel az-Zilliyat escarpment in Saudi Arabia, is inscribed on a sandstone boulder more than three meters wide and two meters high. The boulder sits midway between two pairs of star-shaped desert kites that correspond to the engraving. The entrances to each pair of kites are close together, suggesting hunters could try to trap a herd regardless of which way the animals fled.
The researchers ran radiocarbon tests on samples taken from the Jordanian sites and found that the engraving and the kites were made at about the same time, roughly 8,000 years ago; they suspect the engraving and kites in Saudi Arabia were both roughly 7,000 years old.
An obvious interpretation is that the engravings are plans for building the kites, which would make them the earliest “blueprints” of anything ever discovered.
But they might also be maps of the already-constructed kites for planning hunts—or symbolic representations of them that could be used in rituals—Abu-Azizeh says. “These people were living kites, eating kites, sleeping kites…. maybe they needed to translate this into drawings of the structures.”
Abu-Azizeh can’t estimate how many hunters worked the kites, reasoning that they may have had dogs and so needed fewer people.
The study team had first thought nomadic hunters moved between distant kites with the migrations of herds of gazelles and antelopes. But it now seems the migrating animals tended to stay in roughly the same area, so a set of kites might have been used for months at a time, Abu-Azizeh says. This also suggests the ruins of nearby camps (such as the one in Jordan) might have been longer-lasting settlements, which is something he plans to research next.
Archaeologists have discovered more than 6,000 desert kites across the Middle East and Central Asia; some parts of Syria, Jordan and Saudi Arabia have up to one kite for every square kilometer. The Middle Eastern kites are the oldest, and there’s evidence some were used over thousands of years.
Archaeologist Hugh Thomas of the University of Western Australia, who was not involved in the new study, is the director of a research project in Saudi Arabia that focuses on mustatils—vast ceremonial monuments built by piling up stones about 8,000 years ago. They are often in the same areas as desert kites, but they were apparently used for processions and worship.
More than 1,000 mustatils are known to exist. All of them are found in Saudi Arabia. In some cases, the kites were built before the mustatils, but some kites were also built later, indicating the kites were so effective as animal traps that new ones were built and used over a long period, Thomas says.
“Similar to our research on the mustatils, this paper demonstrates that even 7,000 years ago, people of the Neolithic were able to design and construct monumental structures that utilized the landscape,” he says.