In the deserts of the Middle East, you can find vast megastructures known as desert kites that were carved into the rocky landscape over 8,000 years ago. In a new study, archaeologists have discovered the world’s oldest architectural plans detailing how ancient humans managed to construct these colossal structures.
Desert kites were only identified in the 1920s when airplanes flew over the deserts and noticed unusual patterns in the landscape. While their purpose long-mystified archaeologists, it’s now believed they were used as animal traps, placed along migration routes to ensnare herds of gazelle, antelope, and other game beasts.
They are essentially rock and dirt walls, up to 5 kilometers (3 miles) long, that don’t look like much from ground level, but appear as a colossal pattern when viewed from above.
Given their scale, it was previously unclear how prehistoric humans designed and created the structures without seeing them from the air. However, the recent discovery of two engravings in Jordan and Saudi Arabia is helping to explain this.
At Zebel az-Zilliyat in Saudi Arabia, there are two desert kites around 3.5 kilometers (2 miles) apart that date to over 8,000 years old. Here, researchers have also found engravings, measuring 382 centimeters (over 12 feet) long, that appear to be scale plans of the desert kites.
If this interpretation is correct, the engravings are the oldest known plans to scale in human history.
This was a hugely important time in the human story, when humans were starting to master agriculture and create organized civilizations. The researchers argue the discovery of these architectural plans appears to mark a milestone in human intelligence. Instead of the desert kites being built in a haphazard fumble, the engravings show they were put together in an orchestrated fashion that required abstract thought and bold imagination.
"These representations shed new light on the evolution of human discernment of space, communication, and communal activities in ancient times,” the study authors explain in their paper.
“Although human constructions have modified natural spaces for millennia, few plans or maps predate the period of the literate civilizations of Mesopotamia and Ancient Egypt. The ability to transpose large space onto a small, two dimensional surface represents a milestone in intelligent behavior. Such structures are visible as a whole only from the air, yet this calls for the representation of space in a way not seen at this time,” they said in a statement.
The study is published in the journal PLOS ONE.