Ancient Stone Structures Herded Gazelles to Mass Slaughter

By Valerie Ross | April 20, 2011 9:44 am

What’s the News: Large, corral-like stone stone structures found in the Middle East, called desert kites, were used to capture entire herds of gazelle for slaughter 6,000 years ago, suggests a study published online yesterday by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. While historians and archaeologists have long suspected the structures may have been used to round up and kill gazelles, this study, which found and dated thousands of gazelle bones in close proximity to several desert kites, provides physical evidence to corroborate the idea and an estimate of when the kites were used. (A labeled aerial photo of a desert kite can be found here.)

How the Heck:

  • The researchers analyzed gazelle bones excavated from an archaeological site known as Tell Kuran, a settlement dating back around 5,500 to 5,100 years in what is now northeastern Syria. Tell Kuran is within about six miles of several desert kites.
  • The 2,600 gazelle bones, found in a thin archaeological layer—suggesting they may have all been deposited there within a short span of time—were about 6,000 years old.
  • The bones came from around 100 gazelles, including both male and female animals of a range of ages. The animals found resembled the population of a migrating herd, indicating that an entire herd may have been killed.

What’s the Context:

  • Historical accounts from the 19th and 20th centuries say that Bedouin tribes used the desert kites to slaughter herds of gazelles this way, but researchers didn’t previously have evidence that the practice originated in ancient times.
  • Since the desert kites are made of stone, an inorganic material, researchers have been unable to date them directly using radiocarbon dating.
  • The killings may have had a spiritual component, the researchers suggest. “They had no refrigerators; they would have to consume this meat in a very short time,” University of Haifa archaeologist Guy Bar-Oz, an author of the study, told LiveScience. “This is why you’d connect it to some ritual get-together or feasting. At these certain times, you have a lot of meat and can share it with other people.”

Not So Fast:

  • This find isn’t direct evidence of how desert kites were used, and there are other possible explanations for the huge trove of gazelle bones at Tell Kuran; one archaeologist points out that the gazelles could have been killed in smaller numbers over a longer span of time, with the bones then deposited at a single spot.

Reference: Guy Bar-Oz, Melinda Zeder, and Frank Hole. “Role of mass-kill hunting strategies in the extirpation of Persian gazelle (Gazella subgutturosa) in the northern Levant.” PNAS online before print, April 18, 2011. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1017647108

Image: Wikimedia Commons / Erik A. Drabløs

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Human Origins, Living World
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