Human Journey

Ancient “Desert Kites” Funneled Gazelles into Killing Pits, Study Finds

As long 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, a new study has determined.

“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 today’s online early edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

“Inhabitants of Tell Kuran, an archaeological site in northeastern Syria, constructed low stone walls to funnel game animals into killing pits. Called ‘desert kites’ for the triangular shape they trace out across the desert, such structures were thought to have been used in hunting —  but until now, little skeletal evidence of the species targeted had been found at either kites or nearby settlements,” the researchers said in a summary of their paper, The role of mass-kill hunting strategies in the extirpation of Persian gazelle (Gazella subgutturosa) in the northern Levant.

Guy Bar-Oz is of the Zinman Institute of Archaeology, University of Haifa, Israel; Melinda Zeder is of the Program in Human Ecology and Archaeobiology, National Museum of Natural History (NMNH), Smithsonian Institution, Washington; and  Frank Hole is of the Department of Anthropology, Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut.

Bar-Oz and Hole have both received grants from the National Geographic Society’s Committee for Research and Exploration (CRE). Zeder is a member of the CRE.

Entire Migrating Herd Targeted

From the team’s analysis of a large deposit of gazelle bones unearthed at Tell Kuran, they determined that an entire migrating herd was targeted, with butchering and discard occurring as a single coordinated activity, the scientists reported in the summary of their paper. Nearby rock art depicts gazelles being ritualistically slaughtered in stone traps, and desert kites in the region are contemporary with Tell Kuran, they added.

“Unlike the smaller-scale hunting strategies of earlier hunters reliant on gazelle as their primary source of meat, the Tell Kuran mass-kills are believed to reflect spiritually significant social events. Development of such socially driven mass-kill strategies by farmers and herders may have had a catastrophic impact on populations of these and other desert game animals,” they said.

Melinda Zeder sent National Geographic News Watch this commentary about the research:

This study helps answer open questions about human impacts on wild animal populations in the Near East:

1) When did the extirpation of steppe game animals like gazelle and onager from large parts of the Near East begin? Was this the result of the introduction of fire arms in the 20th century or did this process begin earlier?

2) Did the stone structures called “desert kites” found across the Near East from Arabia to northeastern Syria play any role in this process? Were these used to hunt steppic game animals and if so how?

The large deposit of gazelle bones from at Tell Kuran on the Khabur River of southeastern Syria sheds new light on both these questions. The deposit provides the first definitive evidence of the use of mass-kill hunting strategies using stone structures called “desert kites”.

Archaeologists have long thought that the mysterious funnel shaped structures found in deserts stretching from Arabia to northeastern Syria were used in the hunting of steppic game animals, primarily gazelle. But none of the structures examined by archaeologists have produced any archaeological evidence of either the animals captured and killed in these kites or the strategies hunters used to capture these animals.

Analysis of this assemblage of nearly 3,000 lower foot bones indicates that more than 100 Persian gazelle carcasses were brought to this small site where they were butchered in a systematic fashion. The skins of the animals were carefully removed and non-meat bearing lower legs of the animals cut off and discarded. The rest of the carcass was then taken elsewhere for final butchery and consumption.

The analysis also shows that the animals captured represent a mass, unselective slaughter of a whole herd at the end of the spring/summer birthing season just as the herd was coalescing to make its southward migration to fall/winter breeding grounds.  The depth of the butchery scars found on the bones suggests that the carcasses had undergone a significant degree of rigor mortis, implying that they were brought to the site from some distance, probably from one of the several desert kites found within a few kilometers of Tell Kuran.

Hunting and processing these animals in this way must have coordinated affair involving the effort of a number of people. Kites had to be constructed and maintained and migrating animals had located and then be driven into the arms of the kites by people (perhaps assisted by dogs) where hunters were waiting to slaughter them. Then the carcasses had to be transported back to Tell Kuran for at least two spatially separate stages of butchery. This large amount of meat amassed at a single time – either fresh or dried (another coordinated activity) – would most likely have been distributed to a number of people who may or may not have been involved in the hunting and butchery of the gazelle.

More than 90 of these desert structures have been found in the Khabur Basin of northeastern Syria, indicating that this mass-kill strategy was practiced quite widely in the Khabur.  Associated rock art showing these structures in use and other lines of evidence argue that these structures date to between the 5th to the 1st millennium BC (between 5000 to 1000 BC), bracketing the date of the Kuran bone bed at ca. 3500 BC. The depiction of figures with religious connotations in this rock art suggests that the use of kites was imbued with some symbolic importance.

While gazelle are a steady component of the diet in the region from the earliest establishment of agricultural villages in the region in the 8th millennium BC, people in the Khabur relied primarily on domestic livestock (especially sheep and goats) for meat and other animal resources. Gazelle and other steppe game animals, like onager, were clearly supplemental and not primary sources of meat protein during this time. Both species essentially disappear from archaeological assemblages by the mid-3rd millennium during a time when a region-wide urban society crystallizes in the Khabur.

While there is some indication that these wide spread structures may have been in use in some parts of the Near East as long as 8000 years ago, most of dates obtained for the desert kites found in the Negev, Jordan, and central and northeastern Syria place suggest that their use became especially common in the 4th though the 2nd millennium. There is also textual and pictorial evidence indicating that, as in the Khabur, the use of these kites in hunting steppic game animals across this large area was practiced more in a social or religious context than as an economic pursuit.

Earlier hunting strategies practiced by people who relied on gazelle as a primary source of animal protein targeted individual animals and, while they may have reduced population levels of gazelle, were still largely sustainable. In contrast, the mass-killing strategy practiced by people primarily dependent on crops and livestock during a period of increasing social complexity probably may well have had a devastating impact on steppic game animals.

Killing whole segments of herds along their migratory pathway, especially in calving and breeding grounds, would have fragmented herds and decimated numbers of animals making it difficult for these species to recover.  Remnant population of gazelle and perhaps some onagers did survive into the 20t century when the advent of hunting with guns dealt the final blow that lead to their virtual extirpation. Other steppe species like the hartebeest and the Arabian oryx and perhaps even ostriches also thought to have been hunted in this way — may have succumbed even earlier and are now entirely extinct in the region.

In a separate email from the field, Guy Bar-Oz, the lead author of the paper published in PNAS today, said the research “is in many respects a culmination of our previous desert kite project that Dani Nadel and I conducted about three years ago.” This project was sponsored by the National Geographic Society.

“Our previous project aimed to date and document the geographical settings of the desert kites in the Negev of southern Israel. We also hoped to find animal bones that would record how those kites were operated. While most of our excavation objectives were accomplished (published last year in Antiquity; Vol 84: 976-993) animal bones were totally absent in all desert kites.

“The chance to study faunal remains of such an assemblage was found at the biarchaeological laboratories of the NMNH. The gazelle remains from Tell Kuran which were excavated by Frank Hole filled this missing knowledge,” Bar-Oz said.

“The presence of a gazelle bone assemblage that was catastrophically killed 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 modern firearm reached the region at the beginning of the 19th century,” Bar-Oz said.

12418031_10153900711084116_8462971761216697621_nDavid Braun is director of outreach with the digital and social media team illuminating the National Geographic Society’s explorer, science, and education programs.

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Forty years in U.S., UK, and South African media gives David Braun global perspective and experience across multiple storytelling platforms. His coverage of science, nature, politics, and technology has been published/broadcast by the BBC, CNN, NPR, AP, UPI, National Geographic, TechWeb, De Telegraaf, Travel World, and Argus South African Newspapers. He has published two books and won several journalism awards. He has 120,000 followers on social media. David Braun edits the National Geographic Society blog, hosting a global discussion on issues resonating with the Society's mission and initiatives. He also directs the Society side of the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship, awarded to Americans seeking the opportunity to spend nine months abroad, engaging local communities and sharing stories from the field with a global audience. Follow David on Facebook  Twitter  LinkedIn

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