Category Archives: SAUDI ARABIA

2,000-Year-Old Rock Carvings of Camels Discovered in Saudi Arabia

2,000-Year-Old Rock Carvings of Camels Discovered in Saudi Arabia

Researchers working in a remote spot in northern Saudi Arabia have found around a dozen reliefs and sculptures of camels and donkeys carved into a rock formation. As Ruth Schuster at Haaretz reports, the works in the “Camel Site” as it’s become known as, have been tentatively dated to around 2,000 years ago, but researchers are not certain which culture produced them.

According to a press release by the French National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS), a CNRS researcher along with members of the Saudi Commission for Tourism and National Heritage first examined the sculptures in the Al Jawf province of northeastern Saudi Arabia in 2016 and 2017.

The works were carved into three rocky spurs, and though erosion has taken a heavy toll on the pieces, researchers are still able to discern many of the artworks.

The pieces include 11 unharnessed camels and two equids—donkeys, mules or horses—grazing in natural environments. Notably, the carvings are distinct from other rock art found in the region, and they show a level of skill unseen in other carvings seen the Saudi desert.

The site also includes a rare depiction of a camel meeting a donkey, an animal that does not appear very often in rock art in the area. The findings are described in detail in a new paper, published in the journal Antiquity.

Rock relief depicting recumbent dromedary raising head towards an equid, possibly a donkey or mule

Besides the carvings, little is currently known about the site and the people who created it. No tools or artifacts have been found in the area.

According to the press release, the researchers believe the area was likely not a settlement but may have been a stop for travelers on a caravan route passing through the region. It could have also been a site for veneration or some sort of boundary marker.

Bas-relief of dromedary head

While the art itself is worth investigating, George Dvorsky at Gizmodo reports that the archaeologists have another motive for bringing it to the public’s attention.

The site is currently on private property and has been damaged by erosion, looting of blocks of stone and bulldozers in recent years. In the study they write they hope to “generate awareness of endangered cultural heritage and to ensure the rapid preservation of the site by the Saudi state.”

Schuster reports that there is much researchers can still learn from the site. The date, for instance, remains uncertain. Besides the lack of associated artifacts, erosion has removed any tool marks, making it difficult to find what technology was used to make the camels.

Sculpture (probably not completed) of two dromedaries in single file on Spur C at Camel Site

The style of the camels is also unique, making it hard to associate them with any other cultures in the region.

The closest may be the Nabateans, a nomadic desert culture known for its rock reliefs that eventually settled down to found the city of Petra. But it will take more work and a technique known as micro-erosion analysis to gain further insight about the site.

This isn’t the only baffling structure found in the Saudi Desert recently. Last year, archaeologists used Google Maps to find 400 stone “gates” built with rocks on the desert floor. Those structures may date back as far as 7,000 years.

Archaeologists also found artifacts and evidence of 46 lakes that used to exist in Saudi Arabia’s Nefud Desert last year, lending evidence to the “Green Arabia” theory, which suggests the area has swung between periods of desertification and a wetter climate which attracted plant, animals and even early human ancestors.

200,000-year-old tools from Stone Age unearthed in Saudi Arabia

200,000-year-old tools from Stone Age unearthed in Saudi Arabia

A team of Saudi scientists from the Heritage Authority recently discovered stone tools used by the inhabitants of Assyrian civilization in the Paleolithic time period that date back to 200,000 years.

While exploring the site near Shuaib Al-Adgham in the Al-Qassim area, the Heritage Authority found a range of Neolithic tools: iron knives, scrapers, axes, and stone pierce tools from the Middle Paleolithic period.

These are unique and rare stone axes that were characterized by the high precision in manufacturing that these human groups used in their daily life.

The abundance of stone tools discovered from this site indicated the numerical density of prehistoric communities that lived in this region.

It is also a clear indication that the climatic conditions in the Arabian Peninsula were very suitable for these human groups as they benefited from the natural resources available therein.

The satellite images showed that the Shuaib Al-Adgham and other sites were connected with passages of rivers to confirm that humans used rivers to reach deep into the interior regions of the Arabian Peninsula in ancient times.

According to the wide spatial distribution of the Assyrian sites, they were the largest concentrations of human inhabitance worldwide.

It also indicates that human groups in the Arabian Peninsula were able to cross through vast swathes of geographical distances, while the large number of sites centered around ancient valleys and rivers indicated that these groups were gradually spreading and discovering new sites when they needed them.

These sites were characterized by the spread of broken stone fragments and manufactured tools.

The authority stated that a huge amount of new environmental and cultural information has been collected, and the results showed that there were significant changes in the environments, ranging from very arid to humid.

The current evidence strongly supports the assertions of the existence of the “Green Arabian Peninsula” many times in the past.

During the wet phases of human civilizations, there were rivers and lakes throughout the Arabian Peninsula, which led to the spread and expansion of these human groups.

This confirms that the Arabian Peninsula was a major crossroads between Africa and the rest of Asia throughout prehistoric times and that it was one of the places of settlement in the period of the Stone Ages.

It is believed that the ancient migrations of these human groups were through two main passages — the Bab Al-Mandab Strait and the Sinai Peninsula Corridor.

Saudi Arabia Opens Its First UNESCO World Heritage Site ‘Hegra’ After 2,000 Years

Saudi Arabia Opens Its First UNESCO World Heritage Site ‘Hegra’ After 2,000 Years

Saudi Arabia is now opening the ancient archaeological site – Hegra – for the public in order to promote historical sites. Hegra, which has been unchanged for nearly 2000 years, is the first UNESCO World Heritage site in the Kingdom.

This lesser-known sister city of Petra in Jordan was founded by the Nabateans, an ancient Arab people who inhabited northern Arabia and the southern Levant.

They had created a huge empire in the desert from the 4th century BC to the 1st century AD when Emperor Trajan conquered them and they became subjects of the Romans. These nomads controlled the spice trade, and later they built an astonishing civilization in the desert.

The Qasr al-Farid tomb (The Lonely Castle) carved into rose-colored sandstone in Hegra, also known as Madain Saleh, a UNESCO World Heritage site, near Saudi Arabia’s northwestern town of al-Ula.

Petra was rediscovered in the 19th century, however, the earliest historic location in the kingdom — Hegra — was left forgotten by all but the Bedouin until recent decades. But all that remains now of the city they built is some rock-cut tombs and relics.

Over 90 of the total 111 tombs recorded at the location are decorated. Many of the tombs have inscriptions, written in an early form of Arabic that “warn the living not to interfere with the tombs”, according to a report.

One inscription reads, “May the lord of the world curse upon anyone who disturbs this tomb or opens.” The site also features some 50 inscriptions of the pre-Nabataean period and some cave drawings.

According to UNESCO, the site “bears witness to the development of Nabataean agricultural techniques using a large number of artificial wells in the rocky ground”.

The challenge with getting to know the Nabataeans is that they left behind so little first-hand history.

The remains at Hegra show a lot of Roman influence as it was also once subjugated by the Romans. Despite the Roman subjugation, the city of Hegra continued to prosper until the 3rd century AD.

Ever since the city fell into decline, it had been left practically undisturbed for almost 2,000 years. It was abandoned by the Middle Ages, but the Ottomans built a fort at the site during World War 1 during the Arab revolt which was instigated by Lawrence of Arabia.

Earlier this year, Saudi Arabia’s tourism minister had said that the country could see a decline in the tourism sector this year due to measures taken by the government to fight the coronavirus pandemic.

Saudi Arabia is now determined to wean its economy off the petro pipeline.

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman announced Saudi Vision 2030 in 2016.

It is a roadmap for the kingdom over the next two decades to transform into a global hub for trade and tourism that connects Africa, Asia, and Europe. Also, magnificent antiquities in Saudi Arabia are being promoted as must-do itineraries for travellers seeking undiscovered locations.

A massive 4,000-year-old monolith split with laser-like precision

A massive 4,000-year-old monolith split with laser-like precision

Al Naslaa may look like nothing more than a massive rock to some, yet it is one of the most fascinating geological formations in history. The captivating formation is located far inside the Tayma Oasis in Saudi Arabia, where it has puzzled and entranced historians, geologists, and tourists for years. The formation features a huge piece of sandstone (with unique shaping on both sides) balanced on a naturally-formed pedestal. What makes the formation so unique? It’s split!

What makes the Al Naslaa formation famous

Al Naslaa is unique not only because of its shape, location, and age but also due to the precise break that separates one half of the formation from the other. While it may look like a simple crack in the foundation of the sandstone, the break is so exact and straight that it looks as if though someone took a laser to the rock to split it apart. In addition, the two remarkably heavy sides of the formation seem to balance on nothing more than thin pieces of rock, appearing to nearly gravitate in thin air.

In order to assess the nature of how the famed formation came to be, it’s important to recognize its history. The formation has existed since ancient times and has taken centuries to acquire its shape. Al Naslaa is only one of many rocks in the Tayma Oasis that features a unique appearance, as the limestone, shale, and sandstone there have spent centuries culturing into fantastic formations (with the help of a little rain and wind, of course).

Before these formations even developed into the stunning shapes they occupy today, the Tayma Oasis was occupied by everyone from Babylonian royalty to everyday traders on their route. They interacted with the landscapes in various ways, including writing and drawing on the rocks. In addition to its famed formation, Al Naslaa is fortunate enough to feature one of these petroglyphs on its surface: the figure of a horse.

Thanks to the ancient people who interacted with Al Naslaa (in addition to its geological history), we can tell that Al Naslaa has been a primary part of the Tayma Oasis for as long as the landscape has existed. But what does its shape—along with its iconic split—tell us about how the rock formation came into existence?

The scientific theories behind the formation

Across the years, historians have tried to understand the features that set Al Naslaa apart from the thousands of similar sandstone formations in the Saudi Arabian oasis. In addition to its split, one thing that is unique about Al Naslaa is the smoothness of the front of the rock, despite the round/jagged shaping on either side.

If you were to look at the rock from the side rather than the front, the smoothed-out surface concealing the famous crack might make it look as if though someone sanded the front-facing portion of the formation down. And technically, the elements have.

“The standing stones of Al Naslaa truly are a big mystery. Two stones split in half have created confusion among experts ever since their discovery.”

– Charismatic Planet, YouTube

Considering the nature of sandstone, the flat shaping on the front is unsurprising, as wind and rain have beaten away at the smooth sections of rock. However, natural elements can not explain the thin crack separating either side of the massive rock, or how they have managed to stay perfectly balanced on either of their thin platforms. What have scientists theorized about how the great divide came to be?

The likely cause of the split

According to geologists, the likely cause for the split is tectonic motion. The most likely natural cause of the formation is that the ground shifted ever-so-slightly beneath the supporting beam of one half of the rock, and it caused the rock to split into two. This is the most widely supported theory in the scientific world, though others have speculated at other natural (and unnatural) causes for the rock’s separation.

Other scientists theorize that the split is, in fact, a fault line, as the material surrounding faults tends to be weaker and erode more easily at the will of the elements. If this is the case, then the wind is likely what tore away at the weak material of the fault, leaving behind the near-solid remaining halves of the rock.

In addition, there is potential that the split is the result of a joint (fractures formed at weak points in rock formations) that may have been formed by a type of erosion, such as wind, water or ice.

“This rock formation is called Al Naslaa. The uniform slit between the two standing stones and the flat faces are completely natural. Most likely the ground shifted slightly underneath one of the two supports and the rock split. Could be from a volcanic dike of some weaker mineral that solidified there before everything was exhumed.”

– Hashem Al-Ghaili

However, there are still more theorists who believe that the formation is not a natural occurrence at all. Although scientific evidence backs up the idea that Al Naslaa was not man-made, the conflicting opinions of its formation—in addition to its perfect split—have caused some to turn to other sources of explanation…including the supernatural.

The rumours behind the ancient rock

In addition to the potential natural causes of Al Naslaa, many people—from scientists to conspiracy theorists—have other ideas about how the rock gained its unusual shape. One such theory? Aliens. Considering the formation looks as if though it was cut apart by a well-aimed laser, some believe that a U.F.O. descended into the Tayma Oasis and zapped the rock apart with advanced technology not available to humans at its formation.

While this is a more bizarre theory, plenty of people have put their chips into it, believing that the break between the two halves of the rock is too perfect to have been produced by erosion. In addition, there are others who feel that there is a potential that the ancient settlers of the civilization that first came into contact with Al Naslaa were the ones who managed to split the rock apart. Still, their theories about how they pulled this off might be even tougher to believe than the theory about aliens.

A massive 4,000-year-old monolith split with laser-like precision

Those who feel that ancient civilizations pulled the rock apart don’t believe they did it by sheer man-power, a giant wire, or by tying either end of the rock to a camel carriage. Rather, they feel that there is the potential that advanced humans lived in the Tayma Oasis who were able to successfully craft, aim, and fire a laser to split the rock apart. Considering the precise nature of the crack, it’s understandable why people might feel that there is no way that nature is responsible for the break.

If the Flinstones met the Jetsons, the laser-theory may have been possible, yet most geologists and historians are highly doubtful that this possibility is well-founded. There is no charted technology of that caliber in ancient civilizations. However, with no one there to view the rock’s formation and discredit the more outlandish theories, the chance that the formation was created by superhumans, aliens, or robots remains up for debate.

The current life of Al Naslaa

Today, Al Naslaa is not only a marvel in the scientific community, but is beloved by those who come to visit the formation. People travel from around the world to witness the fascinating and mysterious bit of landscape. Fortunately, the historical rock is open for all to see, touch, and photograph. Reaching the landmark by car on the dirt road is the best route, though some choose to park further back and walk partially through the desert-land to explore other elements of the landscape.

“Sometimes you’ve just got to take a moment out of your day to gaze at an inexplicable petroglyph located in Tayma – about an eight-hour drive out of Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Take a little time to take in two rocks poised on insubstantial plinths, separated by a thin, perfectly vertical gap.

Appreciate the empty divide. Perfect, as if the rock were geologic Gruyère de Comté to which the [A]lmighty took a wire cheese slicer.”

– smith journal

Al Naslaa is not only relevant in historical and scientific circles, but remains a love of many tourists, photographers, and conspiracy theorists worldwide. The photogenic rock that seems to defy all logic continues to mystify those in academic/scientific circles and those beyond it, all of whom are fascinated by the shape, structure, and appearance of the iconic stone.

While we may never know the true root of the formation’s centuries-long shaping—and the rock is still being shaped in real-time by erosion—the debate doesn’t influence the fact that the fascination and intrigue surrounding the formation will never die down.

8,000-year-old stone tools found in Arabia were made using the same technique first created by Native Americans 13,000 years ago

8,000-year-old stone tools found in Arabia were made using the same technique first created by Native Americans 13,000 years ago

The fluted point is created by a flintknapper removing a flake from the base or tip of a spear point. It is generally done on both sides, but there are some cases wherein only one side of the point is fluted.

Fluted point stone tools are well-identified throughout the Americas, extending from the Arctic to Patagonia. But the recent discovery of 8,000-year-old fluted points in the southern part of the Arabian Peninsula, which included Yemen, Oman, and United Arab Emirates, indicates that the Early Holocene people in that region made tools using the fluting method.

Across other countries, such as in eastern and northern Africa, there has been no record of fluted point stone tools recorded. That means that the Arabian fluting method could be a local innovation of southern Arabian people originating from the central region of the peninsula’s southern extremity.

Various types of North and South American fluted points.

8,000-Year-Old Fluted Stone Tools in the Arabian Peninsula

A study published in the journal PLOS One revealed that archaeologists recently discovered some 8,000-year-old fluted point stones on the Arabian Peninsula. It is the same technology that was developed by Native Americans about 13,000 years ago.

8,000-year-old stone tools found in Arabia were made using the same technique first created by Native Americans 13,000 years ago
Pictured, atone fluted points dating back 8,000 years ago which were discovered on archaeological sites in Manayzah, Yemen and Ad-Dahariz, Oman. Until now, the prehistoric technique of fluting had been uncovered only on 13,000 year-old Native American sites

At first, researchers suspected that the stone tools they discovered bear some familiarity about them. The scientists then took note of the flute-like grooves along the sides of the stone points.

They said that the tools examined for the study were found in Ad-Dahariz in Oman and Manayzah in Yemen.

Lead researcher Remy Crassard, the head for archaeology in the French Center for Archaeology and Social Sciences, said that they recognized the technique used in making those stone tools as probably the most famous prehistoric techniques that Native Americans once used.

It took the researchers some time to recognize the technique but more time in understanding how fluting could be present in the Arabian Peninsula.

Fluting is a specific technique that involves the extraction of an elongated flake along the length of a projectile point, leaving a distinctive groove or depression at the base of the spearhead or arrowhead (pictured)

How Did Fluted Point Stone Tools Arrive in Arabia?

For almost a hundred years, archaeologists have discovered evidence of fluted point stone tools at Native American sites that dates back between 10,000 to 13,000 years old.

The fluted stone points found in the Americas are characterized by markings along with the spear points’ bases and blades. But the ones found in Arabia have fluted markings closer to the tips of the stone points.

Both Native Americans and Arabians used hafting to fix blades and points to handles and arrows more securely, but they do so for different purposes.

In Arabia, it was used to create a flat zone in the back of the points and most likely to show ‘bravado’ or display their skills, Crassard said.

Moreover, the authors said that the result of cultural exchange could not have brought the technologies as the two stone fluted points are separated by too much time and space. They think that the latest discovery could be an example of cultural convergence.

Crassard noted that many examples of cultural divergence are recorded in diverse human periods in human history.

“For example, polished stone axes are known from the Western European Neolithic, the Mayan culture of Central America and the 19-20th century tribes of Indonesia,” Crassard said.

According to archaeologists, they were all never connected in time and space, but the objects they made during their time were found to be very similar.

The Qasr Al-Farid, The Lonely Castle Of The Nabataeans

The Qasr Al-Farid, The Lonely Castle Of The Nabataeans

Among the Dozens of ruins located in the archaeological playground of Mada’in Saleh, one literally stands alone. Carved into a massive boulder, Qasr al-Farid, or “The Lonely Castle,” is a stunning ancient structure that rivals the majesty of any carved architecture in the world.

Created around the 1st century CE, the tall facade was never actually finished. The Nabateans had a unique construction technique that saw their tombs being chiselled right out of the rock from the top down.

Such is the case with Qasr al-Farid, although the monument appears to never have been completed, so the craftsmanship and precision of work slowly deteriorate closer to the base of the structure.

The Nabataeans were skilled craftsmen who carved their monuments out of solid roc

One of the most famous monuments of the Madain Saleh archaeological site, listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Called the “lonely castle”, Qasr Al-Farid is nevertheless a tomb. It was carved out of a rock that appeared out of nowhere about 2,000 years ago.

A construction left in suspense, suggested by the contrast between a facade meticulously carved with columns and crowns, and the other part of the rock still intact.

There seems to be no evidence of burial inside. With its unfinished taste and unusual location, the tomb of Qasr Al-Farid cultivates its mystery.

A tune from Petra to Madain Saleh

Between Qasr Al-Farid and the city of Petra, the resemblance is striking. And for good reason, both sites are from the Nabataean civilization.

The same meticulous work on the rock can be seen, although the Saudi tomb was carved from a block of stone stranded in the desert and not from a gigantic cliff.

The location of the Qasr Al-Farid tomb may suggest that it is completely independent. However, it is part of the vast archaeological site of Madain Saleh. Long unknown, the latter was only explored at the beginning of the 20th century, when a Franco-Saudi mission was commissioned to carry out excavation work.

Over 500 hectares, more than 100 tombs – remains of the Nabataean city of Hegra – have been discovered. In 2008, the site was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. A must if you are going to Saudi Arabia!

120,000-Year-Old Footprints Found in Saudi Arabia

120,000-Year-Old Footprints Found in Saudi Arabia

Science Magazine reports that seven hominin footprints dated to some 120,000 years ago with optically stimulated luminescence were identified among hundreds of animal prints in northern Saudi Arabia’s Nefud Desert.

They may have paused for a drink of freshwater or to track herds of elephants, wild asses, and camels that were trampling the mudflats. Within hours of passing through, the humans’ and animals’ footprints dried out and eventually fossilized.

Now, these ancient footsteps offer rare evidence of when and where early humans once inhabited the Arabian Peninsula. “These are the first genuine human footprints of Arabia,” says archaeologist and team leader Michael Petraglia of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.

These footprints were made by ancient humans’ muddy feet as they traversed a lakeshore in Saudi Arabia about 120,000 years ago.

The Arabian Peninsula has long been considered the obvious route that early members of our species took as they trekked out of Africa and migrated to the Middle East and Eurasia.

Stone tools have suggested ancient humans explored the Arabian Peninsula at various times in prehistory when the climate was wetter and its harsh deserts were transformed into green grasslands punctuated with freshwater lakes.

Yet so far, researchers have only found a single human finger bone dating to 88,000 years to prove modern humans, rather than some other hominin toolmaker, lived there.

After a decade of scouring the Arabian Peninsula using satellite imagery and ground-truthing, Petraglia and his international colleagues have identified tens of thousands of ancient freshwater lakebeds, including one in the Nefud dubbed “Alathar,” meaning “the trace” in Arabic. Here, they spotted hundreds of footprints on a heavily trampled lakebed surface, which had recently been exposed when overlying sediments eroded.

Almost 400 tracks were left by animals, including a wild ass, a giant buffalo, elephants, and camels. Only seven were confidently identified as human footprints.

But by comparing the size and shape of these tracks with those made by modern humans and Neanderthals, the researchers conclude the tracks were likely made by people with long feet, taller stature, and smaller mass: Homo sapiens, rather than Neanderthals, as they report today in Science Advances.

The age of the sediments also suggests H. sapiens made the tracks, the researchers say. Using a method called optically stimulated luminescence, which measures electrons to infer when layers of sediment were last exposed to light, the team dated the sediments above and below the footprints to 121,000 and 112,000 years.

At that date, “Neanderthals were absent from the Levant [Middle East],” says co-author Mathew Stewart of the Max Planck Institute for Chemical Ecology. “Therefore, we argue that H. sapiens was likely responsible for the footprints.”

A lot rests on the dates, however. Geochronologist Bert Roberts of the University of Wollongong notes some uncertainties with dating methods at the site—including older ages for animal fossils and potential issues with calculating the precise rate of decay of uranium in the sediments. The dates for the footprints “might be in the right ballpark,” he says, “but more could be done to validate them.”

The team can’t entirely exclude Neanderthals, says paleoanthropologist Marta Mirazón Lahr of the University of Cambridge, because the fossil record is so spotty in Arabia. But she thinks H. sapiens is the more likely candidate.

Even more intriguing, she notes, the footprints show the humans were capable of moving long distances between Africa and Arabia and must have had fairly large foraging parties to have been able to penetrate deep into the rich interior wetlands of Arabia.

The rare association of human and animal footprints laid down on the same day or so also offers a rare glimpse of a day in the life of an ancient human. Usually, animal and human fossils found in the same fossil bed were buried hundreds, if not thousands, of years apart and never laid eyes on each other.

“These footprints give us a unique snapshot of the humans living in this area at the same time as the animals,” says paleoanthropologist Kevin Hatala of Chatham University in Pittsburgh, an expert on ancient footprints. “That tight association in time is what’s so exciting to me.”

7,000 Years old Stone Structures Investigated in Saudi Arabia

7,000 Years old Stone Structures Investigated in Saudi Arabia

According to a statement released by the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, an international team of researchers analyzed satellite imagery and conducted field surveys to document hundreds of massive rectangular stone structures in northwestern Saudi Arabia, and discover more than one hundred additional structures.

Known as “mustatils,” the rectangular monuments are thought to have been constructed by pastoralists for ritual use. Most of them consist of two large platforms connected by long, low, parallel walls, and some locations have multiple structures built right next to each other.

They give insights into how early pastoralists survived in the challenging landscapes of semi-arid Arabia.

View along the length of a mustatil structure, note researchers at far end for scale, image shows character of these structures as two platforms connected by low walls.

The last decade has seen rapid development in the archaeology of Saudi Arabia. Recent discoveries range from early hominin sites hundreds of thousands of years old to sites just a few hundred years old.

One enigmatic aspect of the archaeological record of western Arabia is the presence of millions of stone structures, where people have piled rocks to make different kinds of structures, ranging from burial tombs to hunting traps. One enigmatic form consists of vast rectangular shapes. Archaeologists working with the AlUla Royal Commission gave these the name ‘mustatils,’ which is Arabic for the rectangle.

Mustatils only occur in northwest Saudi Arabia. They had been previously recognized from satellite imagery and as they were often covered by younger structures, it had been speculated that they might be ancient, perhaps extending back to the Neolithic.

View from inside the largest mustatil yet identified, stretching for over 600 metres. This is just one of hundreds of examples of this kind of structure.

In this new article led by Dr. Huw Groucutt (group leader of the Extreme Events Research Group which is a Max Planck group spanning the Max Planck Institutes for Chemical Ecology, the Science of Human History, and Biogeochemistry) an international team of researchers under the auspices of the Green Arabia Project (a large project headed by Prof. Michael Petraglia from the Department of Archaeology at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History and the Saudi Ministry for Tourism as well as collaborators from multiple Saudi and international institutions) conducted the first every detailed study of mustatils.

Through a mixture of field surveys and analyzing satellite imagery, the team has considerably extended knowledge of these enigmatic stone structures. 

More than one hundred new mustatils have been identified around the southern margins of the Nefud Desert, between the cities of Ha’il and Tayma, joining the hundreds previously identified from studies of Google Earth imagery, particularly in the Khaybar area.

The team found that these structures typically consist of two large platforms, connected by parallel long walls, sometimes extending over 600 meters in length.

The long walls are very low, had no obvious openings, and are located in diverse landscape settings. It is also interesting that little in the way of other archaeology – such as stone tools – was found around the mustatils. Together these factors suggest that the structures were not simply utilitarian entities for something like water or animal storage.

At one locality the team was able to date the construction of a mustatil to 7,000 thousand years ago, by radiocarbon dating charcoal from inside one of the platforms.

An assemblage of animal bones was also recovered, which included both wild animals and possibly domestic cattle, although it is possible that the latter are wild auroch. At another mustatil the team found a rock with a geometric pattern painted onto it.

“Our interpretation of mustatils is that they are ritual sites, where groups of people met to perform some kind of currently unknown social activities,” says Groucutt. “Perhaps they were sites of animal sacrifices or feasts.”

The fact that sometimes several of the structures were built right next to each other may suggest that the very act of their construction was a kind of social bonding exercise. Northern Arabia 7,000 years ago was very different from today.

Rainfall was higher, so much of the area was covered by grassland and there were scattered lakes. Pastoralist groups thrived in this environment, yet it would have been a challenging place to live, with droughts at a constant risk. 

The team’s hypothesis is that mustatils were built as a social mechanism to live in this challenging landscape. They may not be the oldest buildings in the world, but they are on a uniquely large scale for this early period, more than two thousand years before pyramids began to be constructed in Egypt.

Mustatils offer fascinating insights into how humans have lived in challenging environments and future studies promise to be extremely useful at understanding these ancient societies.