Mysterious stone structures dotting the Middle Eastern landscape may have served a grim purpose: the ritual mass slaughter of migrating gazelles. The findings suggest that the practice may have led to the animals' near-extermination in the region.
The study was published online this week in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
British air force pilots flying over the Middle East after World War I noticed the odd structures — two long walls forming a V, with an enclosure at the vertex — and named them "desert kites" for the box-and-tail appearance of the enclosures and their low, rock-walled funnels.
Archaeologists long debated the purpose of these kites, found in Arabia up through northeastern Syria. Some thought they were used as corrals, but the rock walls seemed too low to serve as a long-term enclosure. Others thought they were used to drive animals into a trap where a small team of hunters could then kill them with gruesome efficiency. But no proof, in the form of bones, existed.
Finding artifacts within the kites — stone tools, pottery, old bones — would have helped settle the question and date the structures, estimated by some archaeologists as 5,000 years old and by others 11,000 years old. But save for the rare arrowhead or other stone tool, the kites are curiously empty.
Then, researchers stumbled upon a bizarre set of bones on the edge of what was once a small hamlet in northeastern Syria, a few miles from several kites. It was a strange formation, just a few inches thick, densely packed, and made up almost entirely of gazelle bones.
In all, the scientists found about 3,000 bones — predominantly gazelle foot bones — belonging to at least 93 animals, said Melinda Zeder, an archaeozoologist with the Smithsonian Institution, who coauthored the study with Guy Bar-Oz at the University of Haifa in Israel and Frank Hole at Yale University. Carbon dating pegged the age of the bones at 5,100 to 5,500 years old.
"It is remarkable because it's so dominated by certain body parts; that's something you rarely see," said Natalie Munro, an archaeozoologist at the University of Connecticut, who was not involved in the study. "You know something specific is happening here."
Given the shallowness of the bone-pack and the general absence of tooth marks, the animals must have been killed and their remains discarded at the same time, the authors concluded.
What could have allowed for such a slaughter? The nearby kites offered a compelling explanation. The bones showed signs of deep cuts, indicating that the carcasses had enough time to undergo rigor mortis — because the stiffening muscle would have taken much more effort to cut through. This could mean they were brought from the kite to their current location before the butchers carefully skinned the animals, took the meatier parts and discarded the useless foot bones.
Zeder said that before agriculture provided easier and safer supplies of food, gazelles and other wild game were necessary for survival, and intensively hunted. But hunters tended to kill strong males, one by one — and their practices may even have helped keep the population at healthy levels.
This mass hunt, however, was different. An analysis of the bone composition revealed that the gazelle kill included males and females, elderly and young. It looked as if an entire herd had been slaughtered. The presence of teeth from 3-month-old gazelles showed that the slaughter must have occurred in late summer, after the young were born in the spring. At this time, herds would have been gathering for their seasonal migration south — a perfect time to catch the animals all at once.
Rock paintings in the enclosures of hunters chasing animals, sometimes using dogs, supported the theory. Some images even featured deities in the form of a lion or boar, as if the animals were avatars, indicating that at some point the killings gained a ritual significance, perhaps even becoming an activity reserved for the elite.
Zeder said this practice of indiscriminate, ritualized mass killing could explain the near extinction of gazelles in the region.
"Around 2500 BC, when we have a real crystallization of cities in that region, they almost disappear," she said.
She likened the lot of the animals to that of the white-tailed deer, whose severe depletion in several parts of the United States was partly because of indiscriminate hunting in the 19th and 20th centuries.
"In the period in which people really relied on the animals, they hunted them in a sustainable way," she said. But "it becomes unsustainable," she added, as prosperity rises, societies grow more complex and community hunting becomes a pastime for the privileged.