Nigel Cattlin/Alamy; (map insets) Google Earth

Death traps. Migrating gazelles were caught and slaughtered in long stone structures called desert kites (upper right.)

Mass Killings of Gazelles Marked Rise of Human Civilization

The mass killing of wildlife by humans is not a modern phenomenon. A new study concludes that around the time the first cities were founded in the Near East, people herded hundreds of gazelles into long stone passageways that ended in circular pits, where they would slaughter every animal. These massive hunts may have been rich with symbolism at the time, yet the authors argue that they have left the gazelles of the Near East a highly endangered species today.

Gazelles were the favorite prey of hunter-gatherers who lived in the Near East—an area that includes modern-day Israel, the Palestinian territories, Egypt, Jordan, and Syria—before farming began about 11,000 years ago. But there is little evidence that their numbers declined at that time. And when early farmers began domesticating cattle, sheep, and goats, the gazelle's importance as food declined rapidly.

Yet the three gazelle species still found today in the Near East—mountain gazelle, dorcas gazelle, and Persian gazelle—are all endangered. Historical records, based on eyewitness accounts, attest that Bedouin tribes used the long stone walls, known as desert kites and which ranged for up to tens of kilometers, to wantonly slaughter migrating gazelle herds in the 19th and early 20th centuries, much as settlers of the American West massacred buffalo and the antelope-like pronghorn around the same time.

But some researchers have suspected that such practices began thousands of years ago. They think that the hundreds of mysterious desert kites found in the Near East were used to corral and kill wild gazelles and other animals. Scientists have had a hard time figuring out when the kites were used, however, because they contain few traces of organic materials such as bone and charcoal that can be radiocarbon dated.

Now a team led by zooarchaeologist Guy Bar-Oz at the University of Haifa in Israel has found what it thinks is strong evidence that gazelles were massacred at the kites. The researchers analyzed a cache of 2631 pieces of gazelle bone, found during excavations in the early 1990s at the site of Tell Kuran in northeastern Syria, a settlement or hunting camp dated to between 5500 and 5100 years ago—shortly before early cities rose in the Near East. The bone fragments represent at least 93 individual Persian gazelle and bear butchery marks from stone tools. They include all ages of gazelle—juveniles, young adults, and older adults—suggesting that an entire herd had been wiped out.

Earlier archaeological surveys have identified several desert kites within 10 kilometers of Tell Kuran and nearly 50 kites in the Khabur River basin in which the site is located. Rock art near the kites depicts what appears to be the outlines of stone traps used to hunt animals that can be clearly identified as Persian gazelles. Some of this rock art also depicts humans holding clubs that are tethered to lions and bulls, which archaeologists have interpreted as symbolic of the deities worshipped in the cities of Mesopotamia some 5000 years ago. All this adds up to a strong circumstantial case for the ancient mass killings, the team reports online today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

"This paper presents the first compelling archaeological evidence that gazelles were mass hunted," says Natalie Munro, a zooarchaeologist at the University of Connecticut, Storrs. Munro adds that this practice might have had economic as well as symbolic importance, despite the ready availability of domesticated animals, because being able to kill a large number of animals at one time would have been worth the large communal effort it required.

Historical records of gazelle hunting in desert kites suggest that the team is probably correct, adds zooarchaeologist Simon Davis of the Portuguese Institute of Archaeology in Lisbon. Nevertheless, Davis says, he has some "minor quibbles" with the paper, noting that the age distribution of the butchered gazelles could also have come about if the killing had taken place randomly over a long period of time and the bones deposited in one central place. Davis says he would also like to see "more solid evidence for the dates of these kites" before accepting that they were used to hunt the 5000-year-old gazelles found at Tell Kuran.

Posted in Plants & Animals