Hunting season is in November in Canada and those looking to trap or entice a deer onto their property might get a kick out of knowing how the ancients did it. They used desert kites, or a sort of mega-trap to catch their prey. The structures seen from up high in the sky were named ‘kites’ by aviators in the 1920s because they looked like old-fashioned children’s kites with streamers. Until now, the origins and function of Saudi Arabia’s desert kites, monumental structures (like the pendant burial graves) had been a matter of debate.
But new research from French archaeologists reveal that Middle East desert kites were hunting traps, and not enclosures for domesticating animals as proposed earlier.
Remy Crassard, a leading expert on desert kites, notes that they are some of the largest ancient structures of their era from about 7000 BCE, that is 5000 years older than Stonehenge. But not as old as the Göbekli Tepe complex in southeastern Anatolia, Turkey which is dated to 11,500 years old.
The oldest kites, found in southern Jordan, have been dated to 7000 BCE. The age of newly found kites in north-west Arabia is still being determined but appears to straddle the transition from the Late Neolithic to the Bronze Age which is about 5000 to 2000 BCE.
Crassard, affiliated with France’s National Centre for Scientific Research is a co-director of the Khaybar Longue Durée Archaeological Project, estimates that 700 to 800 kites were known 20 years ago compared to about 6,500 now, with the number still growing.
Based on recent research conducted in Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Armenia and Kazakhstan, Crassard’s team affirms that kites were used for hunting and not for domestication, that they “mark a profound change in human strategies for trapping animals”, and that “the development of these mega-traps made a spectacular human impact on the landscape”.
In Saudi Arabia, research led by Rebecca Repper of the University of Western Australia, concentrated on the Harrat ‘Uwayrid, an upland area with an extinct volcano. The team found that a distinct type of V-shaped kit was the dominant form in their study area, in contrast to kites found elsewhere in the region.
Kites have been described in a variety of shapes, including V, ‘sock’, ‘hatchet’ and W-shaped.
Kites may have led to hunting well beyond subsistence levels, related to “an increase in symbolic behaviour related to food production and social organisation”. Some wild species such as gazelles might have altered their migratory routes as a result, and other species might have been hunted to extinction.
How to build a desert kite
Regardless of form, all kites in the region have driving lines of low stone walls that converge to funnel animals towards a trap such as a pit or precipice. On average, the driving lines of the AlUla kites, in Saudi Arabia, are about 200 yards long. Elsewhere they can stretch for miles.
Repper says the shorter length shows the local knowledge of the hunters, who placed the traps in areas where existing landscapes naturally restricted animal movements. Kite placement also suggests that the hunters had an intimate knowledge of prey movements.
While kites recorded in the AlUla region of Saudi Arabia tended to funnel prey towards a sudden precipice, kites elsewhere often end in concealed pits, in which hundreds of animals could be killed during a single hunt. This difference could be an adaptation to the local geography or an evolution of trap hunting.
In Khaybar, two types of kites have been distinguished: traditionally defined desert kites and rudimentary proto-kites, which do not have a well-defined enclosure surrounded by traps or pits. The team suggests that the proto-kites might have been a precursor to desert kites. The more complex kites may reflect less opportunistic and more formalized hunting techniques.
The recent studies expand on earlier discoveries of the Neolithic period in the region, including the construction of large-scale ritual structures known as mustatils.
What are mustatils?
Mustatils are newly found rock buildings in northwest of Saudi Arabia believed to be among earliest stone monuments in history. Mustatils is a plural form of the Arabic term for rectangles and these structures consist of two thick-walled ends, connected by two or more long walls to create a series of giant rectangle courtyards, ranging in length from about 20 yards to half a mile.
As part of the large mustatils, several mysterious “gates” were analyzed are believed to have been elements of procession for ritual sacrifices, as remains of animals including cattle, sheep and gazelle were found. No human remains or elements from domestic life were discovered in the excavation process, but further digging will take place.
Want to read more about desert kites?
‘The Use of Desert Kites as Hunting Mega Traps: Functional Evidence and Potential Impacts on Socioeconomic and Ecological Spheres’ by Rémy Crassard, et al, published in Journal of World Prehistory. Project sponsored by CNRS and French National Research Agency.
‘Kites of AlUla County and the Ḥarrat ‘Uwayriḍ, Saudi Arabia‘ by Rebecca Repper, et al, published in Arabian Archaeology and Epigraphy. Project sponsored by RCU.
‘New Arabian desert kites and potential proto-kites extend the global distribution of hunting mega-traps’ by Olivier Barge, et al, published in Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports. Khaybar data in this article results from the Khaybar Longue Durée Archaeological Project.