Mysterious stone structures dotting the Middle Eastern landscape may have served a grim purpose: the ritual mass slaughter of migrating gazelles. The findings suggest that the practice might have led to the animals' near-extermination in the region.
The study was published online this week in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
British air force pilots flying over the Middle East after World War I noticed the odd structures -- two long walls forming a "V," with an enclosure at the vertex -- and named them "desert kites" for the box-and-tail appearance of the enclosures and their low, rock-walled funnels.
Archaeologists long debated the purpose of these kites, found from Arabia through northeastern Syria. Some thought they were used as corrals, but the rock walls seemed too low to serve as a long-term enclosure. Others thought they were used to drive animals into a trap where a small team of hunters could then kill them with gruesome efficiency. But no proof backed up this idea.
Then researchers stumbled upon a bizarre set of bones on the edge of what was once a small hamlet in northeastern Syria, a few miles from several kites. The strange formation, just a few inches thick and densely packed, consisted almost entirely of gazelle bones.
In all, the scientists found about 3,000 bones -- predominantly gazelle foot bones -- belonging to at least 93 animals, said Melinda Zeder, an archaeozoologist with the Smithsonian Institution, who co-authored the study with Guy Bar-Oz at the University of Haifa in Israel and Frank Hole at Yale University. Carbon dating pegged the age of the bones at 5,100 to 5,500 years old.
Given the shallowness of the bone-pack and the general absence of tooth marks, the animals must have been killed and their remains discarded at the same time, the authors concluded.
Zeder said that before agriculture provided easier and safer supplies of food, gazelles and other wild game were necessary for survival and intensively hunted.
Zeder said the practice of indiscriminate, ritualized mass killing could explain the gazelles' near-extinction in the region.