Archaeologists Solve Century-old Mystery of Prehistoric ‘Desert Kites’

Not places to gather and adore the gods, not pens to hold herbivores for domestication, and not just in Arabia and the Middle East: These strange, giant stone structures are worldwide and their function has been nailed down, once and for all

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Aerial view of a kite in the Khaybar area of northwest Saudi Arabia.Credit: Diaa Albukaai and Kévin Guadagn
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster

Not a subtle bunch, human hunters. If once humans would gang up on some hapless herbivore on its lonesome, our methodology advanced in the Neolithic. The Near East proved to be studded with giant stone structures that amazed archaeologists when first observed by British Royal Air Force aviators in the 1920s.

The fliers dubbed the strange structures “kites” because, if you squint, from the air some of them look like the flying toys. Clearly, much effort went into building them. Now, a century later, we know that almost everywhere Neolithic humans ventured into arid areas, they built crude elongated mega-structures that defied explanation for a century.

Actually, their shape varies. Among the biggest prehistoric structures in the world, some are V-shaped when seen from the air, with two long arms that meet and culminate in a deep pit. Others are circular or star-shaped or arrow-shaped. What they all have in common is low “driving” walls, often with pits at intervals along the walls, which converge.

But their function remained an enigma. But now, after decades of research, the debate is over.

These were not gathering points for rituals. These were not the ruins of forts (not that many thought they were). They were not pens to capture and hold wild animals for taming, as many did think.

They were mega-traps. They used to kill migrating animals not one by one but whole herds at a time, according to a series of new papers: “The Use of Desert Kites as Hunting Mega Traps,” by Prof. Rémy Crassard of France’s National Centre for Scientific Research and colleagues in the Journal of World Prehistory; “Kites of AlUla County and the Harrat ‘Uwayrid,” by Rebecca Repper at the University of Western Australia; and “New Arabian Desert Kites and Potential Proto-kites Extend the Global Distribution of Hunting Mega-traps,” by Olivier Barge and colleagues in Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports.

Their construction marks a profound change in human subsistence strategies, the researchers say. The low walls were erected to channel the fleeing animals into a final enclosure or pit, which may be hectares in area, or to a precipice. In other words, to death.

A kite leading to a sudden precipice over which hunters drove prey, including gazelles and ibex.Credit: David Kennedy/RCU/AAKSAU

The paper by Repper et al reports on 207 previously unknown mega-traps in northwest Saudi Arabia. The newly found traps were especially concentrated in the Harrat ‘Uwayrid – an upland volcanic area featuring mainly V-type kites. Their addition brings the global count of these prehistoric mega-traps to about 6,500, estimates Crassard, who is also co-director of the Khaybar Longue Durée Archaeological Project. Many kites have been detected thanks to the Globalkites project, based on satellite images.

It has been suggested that the technique may have been refined over millennia, starting with rudimentary “open” proto-kites, and culminating in complex kite structures. But that’s just a theory, Crassard stresses. “This whole question about the evolution of kite forms is being explored right now,” he says. “As the Globalkites team just published very recently, there might be a potential difference in kites across time.”

One snag to studying their evolution is that most haven’t been dated, but work on that is happening.

So far, it seems the earliest appearance of kites was in what is today Jordan about 10,000 to 9,000 years ago. The newly reported ones in the Nefud seem to date to the transition from the Late Neolithic to the Bronze Age (meaning 7,000 to 4,000 years ago). There are Armenian ones dated as late as the first century B.C.E. to the first century C.E.

In Israel, researchers have identified 12 prehistoric kites, say Prof. Dani Nadel and Prof. Guy Bar-Oz of the University of Haifa: their dating is unclear. But the last known use of such mega-traps was as late as the 20th century, says Bar-Oz.

Desert kite in the Negev. It's prehistoric but its precise age is unclearCredit: Guy Bar-Oz

They seem most common in prehistoric Arabia, but kite-like structures have now been reported all over the Near East and Central Asia, Europe, Africa and the Americas, both north and south. “There are thousands in North Africa and thousands in North America,” Nadel says. They exist in Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Tibet too.

In fact, Nadel and Bar-Oz deduced the functions of the structures a decade ago, based on work in the Negev desert and Armenia. Ultimately, the other options didn’t add up, Bar-Oz says. For instance, he deems the theory that the kites served to catch animals for domestication illogical because the earliest traps, in Jordan, predate animal domestication know-how there. But debate continued because that is what debate does, he adds.

Taking the bird’s-eye view, one wonders if it is appropriate to lump prehistoric mega-structures the world over together in a group, called kites or anything else.

Prof. Huw Groucutt of Germany’s Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, who is not connected to the new papers but has studied the phenomenon extensively, says the identification of open kites is “pretty reasonable.”

“In Harrat Nawsif, where I have spent time looking for these things, there are a lot of these kite structures around and not much in the way of other wall structures, so they do seem to stand out as real and distinct things,” he says. The key isn’t just converging walls, in his opinion: it’s the enclosure at the end of the kite.

Kite forms in Ḥarrat ’Uwayriḍ, Arabia: (a–c) are simple V-shaped kites: two converging walls end in a trap. The funnel can be curved (a, b) or straight (c). D-F are "hatchet" kites; G is a "rounded" kite; H is a single-walled kite where the topography acts as a second barrier; (I) may be a "sock" kiteCredit: Drawn by Rebecca Repper / background imagery Google Earth

In the eyes of an antelope

“‘Desert kites’ or ‘kites’ is the term generally reserved for those found in Western Asia, as this was the term given by the RAF pilots who first saw them from the air,” says Crassard, explaining the distinctions. “‘Pit-traps’ are a functional component of kites. Other mega-hunting structures can be referred to by other terms, such as ‘game drives’ or ‘game traps,’ and can contain similar functional components.”

Clearly they span millennia (as of the Neolithic, mark you) and yes, they do have this in common too: they were the embodiment of a hunting technique, of “driving” animals into a trap where they might be maimed and unable to flee further, or killed outright.

It has been posited that pits along the mega-traps’ walls were hunters’ blinds. Nay, says Crassard: they were pure killing pits. And lest ye assume this technique was a bizarre artifact of prehistoric societies, ethnographic evidence shows that some remained in use well into the 19th century, he adds.

Aerial view of a V-shaped kite on the eroded eastern edge of the Harrat ’Uwayrid. The guide walls of this kite curve and converge toward a cliff edge, at the bottom of which a collapsed enclosure can be seen which may have assisted in trapping the target prey.Credit: Don Boyer/ RCU/AAKSAU

“The orientation of the mouth of the trap lends credence to the supposition that these were built to catch migrating masses of animals. (If they run northward, you don’t put the trap mouth in the south),” he says. “In some cases, such as the ‘star’- or ‘arrow’-shaped enclosures of large kites, the shape of the enclosure would have prompted the movement of the animals inside the enclosure to the points where the pit-traps were located. When the animals reach that point, they jump over the wall into a pit-trap about 2 to 2.5 meters [6 feet, 7 inches to 8 feet, 2 inches] deep. The unexpected fall may have killed or at least maimed the animal. The verticality of the inside of the pit prevents their escape.”

In some areas the builders created chains of mega-traps over distances as long as 60 kilometers, so animals who evaded one trap would get caught by the next.

In Israel, the longest “arm” walls are 400 meters in length, Bar-Oz says, while they average 500 meters in Jordan. The arms of the newly discovered kites in Arabia average 200 meters in length, Repper and her team report. Possibly these shorter walls attest to the hunters’ accrual of expertise in positioning the traps to maximally take advantage of the topography.

All this raises a question. Nobody thinks gazelles are quadrupedal Einsteins, but why didn’t they just jump over the walls, which seem to have been no more than 80 centimeters in height at the most? Why didn’t they escape?

Rebecca Repper and David Kennedy, both of the University of Western Australia, surveying the Al Hamra region in eastern AlUla County for kites.Credit: Hugh Thomas/RCU/AAKSAU
An ancient ‘kite’ hunting trap in a sandstone landscape in AlUla County, northwest Saudi Arabia.Credit: Don Boyer/Royal Commission for AlUla/Aerial Archaeology in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia-AlUla

Apparently they didn’t jump over the walls because they didn’t see a need to, and it isn’t in their nature. Crassard and the team devoted much attention to this conundrum.

First of all, gazelles tend to follow and run along even quite low linear features. “Attempts to trap gazelles in the Negev have been accounted to be successful using just a simple strip of white plastic laid on the ground,” Crassard and the team write.

Caribou and wild asses also tend to run parallel to walls, fences, railroads and pipelines. Springboks do not spring over low walls unless induced to do so; and the closer to the final enclosure the walls were, the more care the kite builders took.

But crucially, Crassard and the team believe the traps were built in such a way that the animals could not see the pit into which they would fall and meet their maker. Or in the case of traps ending in a cliff, it’s not like the animals had choices. Anyway, possibly at first the “rudimentary stone alignments” guided the unsuspecting herd and as the animals approached the pit of doom, chasing may have become involved. Or maybe the hunters chased herds from far off toward the traps, Crassard and the team write. We just don’t know.

Aerial view of a kite in the Khaybar area of northwest Saudi Arabia.Credit: (Diaa Albukaai and Kévin Guadag

Why why why?

But the greatest mystery regarding the traps remains hopelessly unresolved: Why they were built in the first place?

The sheep, goat, cow and pig began to join the human story about 10,000 years ago, starting in the Fertile Crescent. Almost all the mega-traps were built after animal domestication began to emerge, in tandem with agriculture.

So far, they have been found in generally arid areas of the Old and New worlds, but that could be an artifact of archaeology. “They do seem to correlate with arid and rocky areas,” Groucutt says. “I suspect that organic materials were used to make similar things in other areas, but there is no real evidence for that.” Does make sense, though.

What doesn’t make sense, going by modern mores, is why people who had tamed vegetables and cowed animals would invest vast effort into building giant traps to catch whole herds. The walls may not have been marvels of masonry, but even if one merely piles up stones, the longest arms stretch kilometers and the shortest ones are at least a couple of hundred meters. Also, the people had to dig the pits.

“The need for hunting and the reasoning behind it shifted during the Neolithic from a survival practice to a more complex tradition infused with various meanings,” Olivier Barge and the team suggest. Perhaps new layers of ritual and/or social aspects came into play. Perhaps communal hunting became a social event.

A stylized diagram of kites showing their key components.Credit: Drawn by Rebecca Repper
Diagram of a "hatchet" kite at Harrat ’Uwayrid, showing the typical lopsided enclosure shape that extends alongside the apex of the guide walls, ending in a single cell trap. Arrows indicate the orientation of animals entering the enclosure through the funnel and then the reorientation within the enclosure to be funneled toward the cell, acting as the trap.Credit: Drawn by Rebecca Repper

Perhaps, as Barge and colleagues suspect, the traps may have involved some notion of property rights – a twist on the assumption that settling down and farming led to profound social change that would have included jealously guarding one’s fields and home.

Maybe, Crassard adds, communities hunted animals en masse after they started domesticating herbivores in order to supplement their diet; to obtain a rich source of secondary products such as leather, bone, sinew and horn; perhaps to enable ritual feasting or because of personal preference. Goat stew and leg of lamb with bitter herbs are all very well, but prehistoric evidence from time immemorial shows a craving for deer and gazelle.

Nadel points out that the evidence indicates the animals caught in these mega-traps were generally not species that could be domesticated. Deer, gazelle, oryx and many more simply do not take to the domestic life.

Arabian Oryx "grazing" in the desert.Credit: Nimit Virdi / Shutterstock

Or maybe the gazelles provided a specific resource that we don’t recognize, Crassard says.

Or perhaps some people just really like participating in slaughter.

By the way, even older traps are known from the Paleolithic era in Japan, Crassard adds.

And then there were none

Whatever their rationale, the ecological impact of the traps was immense. It has even been speculated that the phenomenon of mega-trapping was related to changes in herbivore migration patterns in the Near East.

One wonders if all the animals who used a particular migration route had simply died out, leaving the ones who used other routes. But Crassard explains the theory otherwise.

“As areas were overgrazed by wild herds (overexploitation of the biomass), the animals changed their migration patterns to new grasslands, and this led to the hunters’ repositioning of kites. This may account for why there are so many kites: as the animals progressively shifted their migration patterns in progressive search of grazing lands as/when they exhausted the previous one, the hunters observed and followed suit by constructing new kites in/near each new migration path,” he says.

Gazelles in southern Israel, near the Gaza Strip.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

For sure, mega-trapping transformed the landscape of the Near East from prehistoric times and changed the ecology, Crassard and the team explain. It is possible that the practice led some species to local or general extinction.

Saudi Arabia also features another type of prehistoric stone monumental construction: the mustatils. More traps? Au contraire. Some suspect these odd walled enclosures in the stark desert are the remnants of a long-gone cattle cult.

Finally, while speculating wildly, say the phenomenon of mega-trapping began in Jordan, but we later find it worldwide. Are we thinking cultural spread and diffusion, convergent evolution of a eureka moment, or what? “This is most probably an example of cultural convergence,” Crassard answers. “The same things/concepts can be invented by different people at different times and different places.”

Desert kite archaeological sites in the Negev.Credit: Guy Bar-Oz

Groucutt believes there is a trajectory of them getting smaller and more simple from Jordan to Yemen, which looks like spread of an idea/migration southward, getting simpler along the way. But then there is a particular form in the Negev and Sinai that seems a bit different: perhaps it is younger and reinvented.

Yet to have such structures ranging from central Asia to South Africa to the Americas so long ago – that smacks of cultural convergence and reinvention, as seems to have been the case for agriculture itself, seemingly emerging at different times in different places. But ever since the retreat of the glaciers and the advent of the Holocene, wherever we went we made our mega-mark.

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