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Persian Gazelle and Desert Kite. Photo: Just Chaos, Flickr/APAAMEPersian Gazelle and Desert Kite. Photo: Just Chaos, Flickr/APAAME

Desert kites reveal evidence of mass gazelle slaughter

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As far back as 6,000 years ago the people of the Middle East were using a system of stone structures to funnel thousands of migrating gazelles and other animals into traps where they could be killed and butchered.

“Humans may have driven a species of gazelle to the brink of extinction with unsustainable mass-kill strategies,” Guy Bar-Oz, Melinda Zeder, and Frank Hole report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

How a Desert Kite works. Image courtesy Google Maps

How a Desert Kite works. Image courtesy Google Maps

The mass gazelle slaughter now confirmed in northeastern Syria may give more clues to the region’s – “desert kites,”  – strange stone corrals.

The term “kites” was first given by two British Royal Air Force pilots after the 1st World War, when they discovered the features while flying mail above the Syrian desert from Cairo to Baghdad. On the ground they saw numerous installations that looked triangular in shape, but the bases of the triangles were missing and at the apex there was a small enclosure.

Research in the field proved them to be hunting installations for game such as gazelle, orax and wild ass. The “kites” of the Syrian desert are built of 2 low stone walls with lengths that can stretch for hundreds of metres and with enclosure in the apex that look like a closed yard.

In one hunting ‘event’ 5,500 years ago, hunters appear to have herded at least 93 gazelles into a kite and killed the animals

In one hunting ‘event’ 5,500 years ago, hunters appear to have herded at least 93 gazelles into a kite and killed the animals. This may have signified the beginning of the end for many game animals in the northern Levant region.

Historical accounts and rock art suggest that these structures were for hunting rather than providing shelter for domesticated flocks. Melinda Zeder thinks ancient hunters and their dogs may have chased entire herds of gazelle, wild asses and even ostriches into these enclosures, which narrows to a bottleneck and ‘killing pits‘.

An early site excavated at Tell Kuran, in northeast Syria is located within 10 kilometres of several kites, and may provide the first clue to who was responsible for these enigmatic structures. In one layer dated to the fourth millennium BCE., archaeologists uncovered more than 2,600 bones belonging to the Persian gazelle (Gazella subgutturosa), and consisting almost entirely of feet. Forensic analysis shows they are from gazelle of all ages and sexes, suggesting that they represent an entire herd rather than selected individuals.

Kite rock-drawing from Jordan. G.L. Harding: The Cairn of Hani, Antiquity 28,1954:pp 165-7

Kite rock-drawing from Jordan. G.L. Harding: The Cairn of Hani, Antiquity 28,1954:pp 165-7

More than 90 of these desert structures have thus far been found in the Khabur Basin, indicating that this mass-kill strategy was used widely in this area.  Associated rock art showing these structures in use and other lines of evidence argue that they date to between 5th to 1st millennium BCE.  The depiction of figures with religious connotations in the rock art suggests that the use of kites may have been additionally imbued with symbolic importance.

While there is some indication that these structures may have been in use in some parts of the Near East as long ago as 6th millennium BCE, most of dates obtained for the desert kites found in the Negev, Jordan, and central and northeastern Syria suggest that their use became especially common in 4th through to 2nd millennium.

Killing large parts of herds along their migratory pathway, including young animals and females, would have decimated the numbers of animals making it hard for these species to recover.  Small populations of gazelle did survive into the 20th century when hunting with guns dealt the final blow – leading to their complete extinction from this area.

Small populations of gazelle did survive into the 20th century when hunting with guns dealt the final blow

These structures were long thought to have been used in hunting but little skeletal evidence of the species targeted had ever been found at either the kites or nearby settlements, until now, the researchers concluded in the summary of their paper.

Their previous project aimed to date and locate the geographical settings of the desert kites in the Negev of southern Israel, (Antiquity; Vol 84: 976-993) however animal bones were totally absent in all desert kites they surveyed.

The National Geographic quotes Bar-Oz as saying, “The presence of a gazelle bone assemblage …. [is] a strong testimony to the role of post-Neolithic societies on the ancient Levantine landscape. As such it indicates that uncontrolled hunting was a major cause of wild ungulate extinction. We know now that this process had started much before the modern firearm reached the region at the beginning of the 19th century.”

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