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Desert Kites

Ancient Hunting Technique

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Syrian Desert Kite near Tell Kuran

Syrian Desert Kite near Tell Kuran

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A desert kite (or kite) is a variation on a type of communal hunting technology used by hunter-gatherers throughout the world. Like similar ancient technologies such as buffalo jumps or pit traps, desert kites involve a collection of people purposefully herding a large group of animals into pits or enclosures, or off steep cliff edges.

Desert kites consist of two long, low walls generally built of unmortared field stone and arranged in a V- or funnel shape, broad at one end and with a narrow opening leading to an enclosure or pit at the other end. A group of hunters would chase or herd large game animals into the wide end and then chase them down the funnel to the narrow end where they would be trapped in a pit or stone enclosure and easily slaughtered en masse.

Archaeological evidence suggests that the walls don't have to be tall or even very substantial--historical kite use suggest that a row of posts with rag banners will work just as well as a stone wall. However, kites cannot be used by a single hunter: it is a hunting technique that involves a group of people planning in advance and working communally to herd and eventually slaughter the animals.

Identifying Desert Kites

Desert kites were first identified in the 1920s by Royal Air Force pilots flying over the eastern desert of Jordan; the pilots named them "kites" because their outlines as seen from the air reminded them of the children's toy kites. Extant remnants of kites number in the thousands, and are distributed throughout the Arabian and Sinai peninsulas and as far northward as southeastern Turkey. Over a thousand have been documented in Jordan alone.

The earliest desert kites are dated to the Pre-Pottery Neolithic B period of 9th-11th millennia BP, but the technology was used as recently as the 1940s to hunt the Persian goitered gazelle (Gazella subgutturosa). Ethnographic and historic reports of these activities state that typically 40-60 gazelles could be trapped and killed in a single event; on occasion, up to 500-600 animals could be killed at once.

Archaeology and Desert Kites

Over the decades since the kites were first identified, their function has been debated in archaeological circles. Until about 1970, a majority of archaeologists believed that the walls were used to herd animals into defensive corrals in times of danger. But archaeological evidence and ethnographic reports including documented historic slaughtering episodes have led most researchers to discard the defensive explanation.

Archaeological evidence for the use and dating of kites includes intact, or partially intact stone walls extending out for a distance between a few meters to a few kilometers. Generally, they are built where the natural environment helps the effort, on flat land between narrow deeply incised gullies or wadis. Some kites have constructed ramps leading gently upward to increase the drop-off at the end. Stone walled or oval pits at the narrow end are generally between six and 15 meters deep; they are also stone walled and in some cases are built into cells so that the animals can't gain enough speed to leap out.

Radiocarbon dates on charcoal within the kite pits are used to date the time that the kites were in use. Charcoal isn't typically found along the walls, at least not associated with the hunting strategy, and luminescence of the rock walls has been used to date them.

Mass Extinction and Desert Kites

Faunal remains in the pits are rare, but include gazelle (Gazella subgutturosa or G. dorcas), Arabian oryx (Oryx leucoryx), hartebeest (Alcelaphus bucelaphus), wild asses (Equus africanus and Equus hemionus), and ostrich (Struthio camelus); all of these species are now rare or extirpated from the Levant.

Archaeological research at the Mesopotamian site of Tell Kuran, Syria, has identified what appears to be a deposit from a mass kill resulting from the use of a kite; researchers believe that the overuse of desert kites may have led to the extinction of these species.

Sources

This glossary entry is a part of the About.com guide to Ancient Hunting, and the Dictionary of Archaeology.

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.

Holzer A, Avner U, Porat N, and Horwitz LK. 2010. Desert kites in the Negev desert and northeast Sinai: Their function, chronology and ecology. Journal of Arid Environments 74(7):806-817.

Kennedy D. 2011. The “Works of the Old Men” in Arabia: remote sensing in interior Arabia. Journal of Archaeological Science 38(12):3185-3203.

Nadel D, Bar-Oz G, Avner U, Boaretto E, and Malkinson D. 2010. Walls, ramps and pits: the construction of the Samar Desert kites, southern Negev, Israel. Antiquity 84(326):976-992.

Rees LWB. 1929. The Transjordan Desert. Antiquity 3(12):389-407.

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