Stone Age hunters in the Middle East and Central Asia used giant stone structures to trap wild animals. Today, archaeologists refer to these massive constructions as desert kites because of how they look from above—like a kite with several long tails.
Now, in a study published last week in the journal PLOS One, researchers say they have found stone engravings that are accurate, to-scale depictions of desert kites that date to between 7,000 and 8,000 years ago. This makes them the oldest known realistic plans for large, human-made structures, the authors write.
Humans have recreated their surroundings in art forms, including sculptures and paintings, for at least 40,000 years. But what makes the newly found blueprints noteworthy is their precision.
“The amazing discovery is that the plans are to scale,” Rémy Crassard, a co-author of the study and an archaeologist at the French National Center for Scientific Research, tells Scientific American’s Tom Metcalfe. The depictions are “constrained by shape, by symmetry and by dimensions,” he adds to the publication. “We had no idea that people at that time were able to do that with such accuracy.”
These diagrams also reveal surprises about Stone Age people’s ability to visualize objects. Desert kites could measure larger than two football fields in size, with some lines of stones stretching more than three miles long. As a result, the complex structures can only be seen in full from the air. While no one at the time would have been able to get this vantage point, the drawings take a bird’s-eye view.
“The most stunning insight for me personally is the degree of abstraction,” Jens Notroff, an archaeologist at the German Archaeological Institute who did not contribute to the research, tells Live Science’s Kristina Killgrove. “They represent a view none of those participating in construction and use of these desert kites could easily reproduce from their own visual experience.”
Desert kites helped capture animals by funneling the creatures through long, stone-lined pathways into a main enclosure, where hunters could kill them or trap them in pits, as Wael Abu-Azizeh, a co-author of the study and an archaeologist at the French Institute of the Near East, tells New Scientist’s Christa Lesté-Lasserre.
For about ten years, the team has used satellite imagery to document more than 6,000 desert kites stretching from the Middle East to Central Asia. As part of this research, archaeologists uncovered two engravings that depicted desert kites in 2015. One was found in the Jibal al-Khashabiyeh region in Jordan, and the other came from the Jebel az-Zilliyat region in Saudi Arabia.
The engraving in Jordan was made on a limestone slab, likely with a stone hammer, and measures about 2.6 feet long by 1 foot wide. It dates to around 8,000 years ago. Meanwhile, the much larger carving in Saudi Arabia was on a sandstone boulder and depicted two nearby kites. The approximately 7,000-year-old engravings spanned an area of roughly 12.5 feet by 7.7 feet and could have been made with a picking tool.
Computer modeling confirmed that the engravings were accurate representations of nearby kites, including the pit traps inside, per New Scientist. “It’s mind-blowing,” Crassard tells the New York Times’ Priyanka Runwal, “to know and to show that they were able to have this mental conceptualization of very large spaces and to put that on a smaller surface.”
The previously oldest known precise depictions of structures are from around 5,000 years ago in Mesopotamia and Ancient Egypt, per Vice’s Becky Ferreira.
It remains unclear whether the engravings were used to help plan construction of the kites, held symbolic cultural significance, or had some other purpose. The researchers hypothesize that people could have used the engravings to help position hunters and coordinate capturing animals.
“I can easily imagine that these engravings would have formed a vital element of planning,” Sam Smith, an archaeologist at Oxford Brookes University in England who wasn’t involved in the research, tells New Scientist.