Texas barbecue has nothing on the ancient Near East.
A mass gazelle slaughter unearthed in northeastern Syria may give clues to the region’s “desert kites,” strange stone corrals that many researchers consider among humans’ first mass-scale snares. In a single massacre 5,500 years ago, hunters appear to have herded at least 93 gazelles into a kite and then killed the animals, an Israeli and U.S. team reports online April 18 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Roundups like these may have been the beginning of the end for many game animals in the northern Levant region. Like infamous and mysterious crop circles, Westerners first spotted desert kites from the air. These horseshoe-shaped rock corrals, with arms sometimes a kilometer long, were mysterious indeed.
Historical accounts and rock art suggest that the corrals weren’t for flock safety but for slaughter, says study coauthor Melinda Zeder. She thinks ancient hunters and their dogs may have scared entire herds of gazelle, wild asses and even ostriches into these enclosures, then narrowed in for the quick kill. “It must’ve been a heck of a roundup,” says Zeder, an archaeozoologist at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History.
But this roundup left behind few barbecue pits. Near East hunters, or maybe time, cleaned up, and kites today are scant in bones or artifacts of any kind. An excavated town called Tell Kuran, which sits within 10 kilometers of several kites, however, may provide the first hint of where all that meat wound up. In one ghastly layer dated to the fourth millennium B.C., archaeologists uncovered about 2,600 Persian gazelle bones, mostly feet. Forensic analyses, too, show that the feet came from gazelle of all ages and sexes, suggesting that they represent a single herd taken out in one fell swoop. Researchers would expect exactly that sort of swoop from the nearby kites, which some studies date to around the same time, Zeder says.
Since domestic animals abounded at the time, kite hunting may have been less about food and more of a social pursuit among the region’s upper class. Gentleman’s sport or not, these hunts could have helped to kick off the Persian gazelle’s “long, slow death march to real extirpation,” Zeder says. Kites sat across proposed game migration routes from Saudi Arabia north to Syria, sometimes in long chains. A drain on herds may have been too much for Persian gazelle and wild asses, which have now nearly vanished from northeastern Syria.
“Those hunters were farmers, were herders,” says study coauthor Guy Bar-Oz, an archaeozoologist at the University of Haifa in Israel. “They lost the way of hunting.”
But hunting isn’t the only possible culprit in the gazelles’ demise, suggests Liora Kolska Horwitz, an archaeozoologist at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. At the time when gazelles began dropping off, Horwitz says, human settlements and agriculture were growing, and the deserts were drying out.