Three years ago rock spurs in northern Arabia were revealed to the world to have been carved into life-sized representations of camels and horses or donkeys. Despite eroding almost to invisibility, 21 quadruped reliefs have been identified deep in the desert at what has become known as the Camel Site. These have now been found to be around four times older than initially thought, dating back to the Neolithic.
Stone carvings are hard to date, so initial estimates of the Camel Site's age were based on similarities to locations of known timing. The subjects are different, but the style had enough in common with the famous city carved from rock at Petra, Jordan, that the carvings were thought to be the work of the Nabataeans, contemporaries of the Romans whose territory stretched from the Euphrates to the Red Sea.
However, in the Journal of Archaeological Science Reports scientists reveal the true age is close to 8,000 years, suggesting they were made during the 6th millennium BCE. These carvings not only easily predate the pyramids of Egypt or Stonehenge, but beat the Mesopotamian ziggurats by up to 2,000 years, making them some of humanity's oldest surviving three-dimensional large products.
Today the Camel Site sits in a harsh desert. Conditions were wetter in Nabataean times, but not by much, so the site was assumed to be a stopping point on a trade route. However, 7-8,000 years ago the site was part of a savannah where lakes provided water for herding livestock, and scattered trees gave shelter from the Sun.
“We can now link the Camel Site to a period in prehistory when the pastoral populations of northern Arabia created rock art and built large stone structures called mustatil,” the paper says. “The Camel Site is therefore part of a wider pattern of activity where groups frequently came together to establish and mark symbolic places.”
Since no one way of measuring the age of carvings such as these is very accurate, lead author Dr Maria Guagnin of the Max Plank Institute for the Science of Human History and the rest of the team relied on multiple techniques to get an answer they could trust.
X-ray fluorescence spectrometry was used to measure varnish on the rocks and fallen fragments were studying using luminescence dating that reveals how long they have been exposed to radiation at the surface. Remains of animals that could be from the time of the carvings were radiocarbon dated and erosion patterns and tool marks analyzed
The camels are so realistic it is possible to differentiate those apparently representing the wet season, when camels gained weight, and the dry.
“Neolithic communities repeatedly returned to the Camel Site, meaning its symbolism and function was maintained over many generations,” Guagnin said in a statement. “Preservation of this site is now key, as is future research in the region to identify if other such sites may have existed. Time is running out on the preservation of the Camel Site and on the potential identification of other relief sites as damage will increase and more reliefs will be lost to erosion with each passing year.”
Rock art was widespread across the region at the time, often depicting life-sized animals, but the carvings at the Camel Site show much more advanced skills, encouraging the belief they came far later.