Archaeological excavations at a Mesopotamian site have provided indirect evidence that several herd animal species were hunted to near-extinction in the Levant between 4000 and 1000 BC.
Scholars have long recognized that many species including hartebeest, Arabian oryx and ostrich disappeared from what is today Syria and Israel during the second millennium BC. Reasons for this disappearance of herd animals has been attributed to a variety of causes, including urban expansion, loss of habitat to sheep farming, and hunting. Investigations by Guy Bar-Oz (Haifa University) and associates at the site of Tell Kuran, Syria, suggest that one major culprit might have been the intensive use of desert kites.
A desert kite is a one of a handful of deathly efficient collaborative hunting methods used by human beings, in which the hunters use pairs of natural and/or constructed walls to drive whole herds of animals into an enclosure or pit or off a cliff face. Desert kites are known from southeastern Turkey to the Arabian peninsula, and the first ones date to the Pre-Pottery Neolithic, between the 7th and 9th millennium BC. They appear to have been most in use between ~4000-1000 BC, during which time onagers, oryx, hartebeest and ostrich were extirpated from the southern Levant.
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Tell Kuran is a Mesopotamian site located in the Khabur River Basin of northeastern Syria, a small mound with documented Ubaid (4700-4600 BC) and Late Uruk (ca 3300 BC) occupations. Nearly fifty desert kites are known in northeastern Syria, several within a few kilometers of Tell Kuran. Within the tell's deposits was discovered a shallow lens of densely packed gazelle bones (Gazella subgutturosa). The deposit, roughly dated to ~3500-3100 BC, contains the remains of a minimum of 93 gazelles, of all ages and sexes. Most of the gazelle bones are non-meaty parts, such as the lower parts of feet. A small number of meat-bearing bones (ribs, scapulae, etc) were recovered, and no evidence of burning was identified within the deposit, leading the researchers to interpret this deposit as the initial stage of the butchery of a large number of gazelle carcasses.
Butchery marks on the foot bones suggest that they occurred during skinning; and the depth of the cutmarks suggests a significant time gap between the death of the animal and when it was skinned. Bar-Oz and colleagues suggest this is because the animals were killed at some distance from the site, then brought to Tell Kuran for the initial butchery. The animals in the deposit include a range of neonates, juveniles, prime-age adults and old animals, and both sexes, suggesting this is represents a complete herd, rather than the result of a culling or attrition (which would only include old and weak animals), or a hunting episode (which would only include the best meat-bearing animals).
Further evidence from the bones indicates that the kill occurred during the mid-to-late summer, when the herd would have been moving into its southern territories. Gazelles did not go extinct during this period, although they did disappear from the archaeological record in the southern Levant for some two thousand years. Bar-Oz and associates recognize that ostrich, oryx and hartebeest were also hunted by use of desert kites, and hypothesize that these species may not have been so resilient as the Persian gazelle.
Persian gazelle (Gazella subgutturosa). Photo by Alistair Rae
Bar-Oz G, Zeder MA, and Hole F. 2011. Role of mass-kill hunting strategies in the extirpation of Persian gazelle (Gazella subgutturosa) in the northern Levant. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Early Edition.