TOM: Imagine a group of British Army Air Corps pilots flying over the deserts of the Near East in the early years of the 20th Century. From the cockpits of their bi-planes they could see strange lines and circles seemingly etched into the landscape below. These airmen dubbed the bizarre shapes ‘desert kites’ and were spotted throughout the region of what is now northeast Syria.
DIANA: They’re not an ancient Syrian equivalent of the Nazca Lines in southern Peru?
TOM: Not as mysterious, I’m afraid! Although fairly gruesome, I have to say! Archaeologists have discovered the remains of more than a hundred Persian gazelles – Gazella subgutturosa – in what has been described as a ‘killing zone’: a structure that consists of a converging pair of low stone walls, which were used to channel migrating gazelles and other animals into enclosures, and pits where the animals were slaughtered and seemingly processed en masse.
DUNCAN: This is a lot like the hunting traps from Lake Huron that we reported on two years ago. So to catch prey, you funnel them into a small area and then rain down a few arrows, spears or even clubs. Have they been able to date the killing zones, Tom?
TOM: Dr. Guy Bar-Oz from the Zinman Institute of Archaeology at the University of Haifa in Israel has suggested that these structures could date to around 10,000 years ago, so during the early stages of agriculture in the Near East. But the large number of skeletal remains of gazelles at this particular site of Tell Kuran, near the town of Hasseke in the Khabur Basin has been dated to around 6,000 years ago. Careful analysis of the bones has found the tell-tale signs of butchery, including the removal of skin, so these animals were processed on site.
DIANA: Is this a one-off site or are there lots of killing zones with large deposits of animal remains in the region?
TOM: Well, archaeologists have long-suspected that these strange walled enclosures had something to do with hunting gazelles and/or other herds of migrating animals, but there hasn’t been much definitive evidence for mass slaughter at these sites. There are lots of ‘desert kites’ throughout the Near East, especially in modern-day Jordan, but, according to Dr. Bar-Oz, this particular site seems to represent a “catastrophic hunting episode – [where] a full herd was killed.”
DUNCAN: How do they know it was a full herd?
TOM: The demographic of the herd suggests an equal number of males and females, as well as a few juveniles of two or three months of age. That’s unusual, because ancient hunter-gatherer societies tended to conserve herds and only take what they needed. The removal of an entire herd would have had a big impact on local gazelle populations in the Khabur Basin. The question of ‘over-hunting’ is a puzzling one.
DIANA: So, what’s their explanation?
TOM: It’s likely that the community at Tell Kurun were agricultural and kept their own herds of livestock. They may have been reducing the number of gazelles in the local area to create more space for themselves. However, the archaeologists also think that something profoundly spiritual might be going on: nearby rock art from this period depict scenes of mass slaughter. Perhaps the ritualistic killing of entire herds performed an important social or spiritual function in the lives of these early agriculturalists? Either way, the impact it would have had on local gazelle populations in that region would have been devastating.