8,000-year-old rock carvings in Arabia may be the world’s oldest megastructure blueprints

Middle Eastern hunters engraved to-scale plans of their 'desert kite' traps into rocks some 8,000 years ago.

The Arabian Peninsula is home to some of the most breathtaking architectural wonders on Earth, but it turns out that its rich history extends far beyond just human-made structures.

8,000-year-old rock carvings in Arabia may be the world's oldest megastructure blueprints 1
A photograph of the engraved stone at the time of discovery at the Jibal al-Khashabiyeh site in Jordan. (The monolith was found lying down and was set vertically for the photograph.) © SEBAP & Crassard et al. 2023 PLOS One / Fair Use

A new study has revealed that the 8,000-year-old rock carvings found in the area may be the world’s oldest megastructure blueprints. These engravings, which feature stars and lines, may have been used to represent nearby hunting traps, making them the first-ever scale-plan diagrams in human history.

These constructions, known as desert kites, were discovered by archaeologists some 100 years ago when aerial photography began to take off with airplanes. Kites are huge tracts of land surrounded by low stone walls, with pits on the interior near the edge.

Kites, which are found mostly in the Middle East and Central Asia, are assumed to have served as animal enclosures or traps. Hunters would herd animals, such as gazelles, into the kite down a long, tight tunnel where the game could not escape the walls or pits, making them simpler to kill.

Kites cannot be seen in their whole from the ground due to their vast size (averaging close to the square area of two football fields). However, the availability of publicly available, high-resolution satellite photographs, such as those provided by Google Earth, has accelerated the study of desert kites during the last decade.

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An aerial view of a desert kite from Jebel az-Zilliyat, Saudi Arabia. © O. Barge/CNRS / Fair Use

The recent discovery of architectural-like shapes etched in rocks in Jordan and Saudi Arabia has shown how Neolithic humans may have designed these “mega-traps,” according to a new study published in the journal PLOS One on May 17,  2023.

The authors of the study used mathematical calculations to compare the form and size of known kites to the rock-cut kite patterns. Their first example was a carved limestone monolith from Jordan’s Jibal al-Khashabiyeh archaeological site.

The roughly 3-foot-tall (80-centimeter) stone made an excellent canvas for prehistoric humans, who etched long, kite-like lines that led animals into a star-shaped enclosure with eight cup-shaped depressions that indicate pit traps.

The stone features distinct carving styles, but it’s unclear if they were done by one person or numerous persons, according to study first author Rémy Crassard, an archaeologist at the French National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS).

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An excavated pit-trap from a desert kite in Jibal al-Khashabiyeh, Jordan. © SEBAP & O. Barge/CNRS / Fair Use

The second specimen, from Saudi Arabia’s Wadi az-Zilliyat, depicts two kites carved into a massive sandstone rock over 12 feet tall and over 8 feet broad (approximately 4 by 2 meters). Although not in the same manner as the Jordan kite design, the Saudi Arabia kite diagram has driving lines, a star-shaped enclosure, and six-cup markings at the ends of the points.

Kites are notoriously difficult to date since they are made out of pebbles and pits, which means they generally lack organic material that can be tested using radiocarbon dating.

The team believes that these two sites date to roughly 8,000 years ago, around the end of the Neolithic period in Arabia, based on similarities with surrounding kites connected with sediments and organic remains.

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A drawing of a projected view of the kites’ representation showing legible and unclear engravings, with a colored restitution of the topography of the boulder surface, from Jebel az-Zilliyat, Saudi Arabia. © Crassard et al. 2023 PLOS One / Fair Use

Crassard and colleagues from the Globalkites Project then used geographical graph modeling to match the rock-cut designs to hundreds of known kite plans.

Mathematical comparisons of the engravings with documented kites revealed similarity scores: the Jordanian diagram was found to be most similar to a kite 1.4 miles (2.3 kilometers) away, while the Saudi Arabian diagram was most similar to a kite 10 miles (16.3 kilometers) away and very similar in appearance to another 0.87 miles (1.4 kilometers) away.

“The engravings are surprisingly realistic and accurate, and are moreover to scale, as observed by the geometric graph-based assessment of shape similarity,” the authors wrote in the study. “These examples of kite representations are thus the oldest known architectural plans to scale in human history.”

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The engraved boulder from Jebel az-Zilliyat, Saudi Arabia, depicting two desert kites. © SEBAP & Crassard et al. 2023 PLOS One / Fair Use

The scientists hypothesized that a group of individuals planning for a hunting activity may have reviewed and discussed the strategy of an already-built kite, which could have involved coordinating the number and location of the hunters and predicting the animals’ behaviors ahead of time.

It’s also conceivable that this diagram was utilized to build the kite in the first place. In either case, the researchers argued in their study that humans forging a relationship between physical space as viewed from above and graphical representation is a significant advance in abstract cognition and symbolic representation.

Jens Notroff, a Neolithic archaeologist at the German Archaeological Institute who was not involved in this research, told Live Science in an email that “the discovery of this specific type of schematic rock art already is an absolutely fascinating addition to our now growing understanding of these Neolithic desert kites and their obviously complex layout within the landscape.”

Notroff also said, “the most stunning insight for me personally is the degree of abstraction – they represent a view none of those participating in construction and use of these desert kites could easily reproduce from their own visual experience.”

Crassard and colleagues are continuing their work on desert kites through the Globalkites Project. Although “these engravings are the oldest known evidence of at-scale plans,” Crassard said, it is possible that people created similar diagrams in less-permanent material, such as by drawing them in the dirt.

The study originally published in the journal PLOS One on May 17, 2023.