Hundreds of prehistoric hunting traps identified across the Arabian desert

These monumental structures, termed 'kites', consist of low stone walls that stretch hundreds of metres and lead to an enclosure in which gazelles and other game could be trapped.

A research team has identified more than 350 previously undocumented monumental structures in northern Saudi Arabia and southern Iraq, shedding new light on hunting strategies, climate change, and cultural connection in the Neolithic Middle East.

These structures, termed ‘kites’, consist of low stone walls stretching over hundreds of metres, or sometimes kilometres, that lead towards an enclosure (or ‘kite head’). It is widely accepted that they functioned as traps, guiding gazelles and other game between the walls and into the enclosure to be captured or killed.

Building and maintaining these structures would have required considerable resources and collaborative organisation.

David Leslie Kennedy Aerial photo of a typical kite from eastern Jordan. Image: APAAME.

Kites are well-known from eastern Jordan and southern Syria, and are thought to have largely been built during the Holocene Humid Period (between c.9000 and 4000 BC), when increased rainfall allowed flora and fauna to flourish.

The new distribution of kites was identified through remote-sensing analysis of open-source imagery, undertaken by the University of Oxford’s School of Archaeology as part of the Endangered Archaeology in the Middle East and North Africa (EAMENA) project.

Led by Dr Michael Fradley, principal author of the study published in The Holocene, the research team surveyed a total area of 135,000km, documenting 354 new kite structures, most of which are in the classic star-shaped form.

‘The structures we found displayed evidence of complex, careful design,’ said Dr Fradley. ‘In terms of size, the “heads” of the kites can be over 100 metres wide, but the guiding walls (the “strings” of the kite) which we currently think gazelle and other game would follow to the kite heads, can be incredibly long.’

‘In some of these new examples, the surviving portion of walls run in almost straight lines for over four kilometres, often over very varied topography,’ added Dr Fradley.

According to the study, similarities observed in the morphology and alignment of the new distribution of kites suggest that they are a continuation of the well-known arc of kites running through Jordan and Syria. These new findings therefore extend this distribution more than 400km further east across the eastern Nafud Desert in northern Saudi Arabia, with a handful also identified in southern Iraq for the first time.

This hints at a previously unknown span of cultural connections between these regions, and contributes to our understanding of how this landscape – that is now desert – was utilised by Neolithic peoples whilst under more favourable climatic conditions.

Other monumental structures were identified during the survey, including a number of cairn tombs and mustatils.

With support from the Arcadia Fund, the EAMENA project now plans to expand the survey work into other areas of the region.