Category Archives: SAUDI ARABIA

Hundreds of Monumental “Kites” Spotted in the Arabian Desert

Hundreds of Monumental “Kites” Spotted in the Arabian Desert

Oxford archaeologists discover monumental evidence of prehistoric hunting across Arabian desert

Archaeologists at the University of Oxford’s School of Archaeology have used satellite imagery to identify and map over 350 monumental hunting structures known as ‘kites’ across northern Saudi Arabia and southern Iraq – most of which had never been previously documented.

Led by Dr Michael Fradley, a team of researchers in the Endangered Archaeology in the Middle East and North Africa (EAMENA) project used a range of open-source satellite imagery to carefully study the region around the eastern Nafud desert, an area little studied in the past. The surprising results, published in the journal The Holocene, have the potential to change our understanding of prehistoric connections and climate change across the Middle East.

Termed kites by early aircraft pilots, these structures consist of low stone walls making up a head enclosure and a number of guiding walls, sometimes kilometres long. They are believed to have been used to guide games such as gazelles into an area where they could be captured or killed. There is evidence that these structures may date back as far as 8,000 BCE in the Neolithic period.

Kites cannot be observed easily from the ground, however, the advent of commercial satellite imagery and platforms such as Google Earth have enabled recent discoveries of new distributions.

While these structures were already well-known from eastern Jordan and adjoining areas in southern Syria, these latest results take the known distribution over 400km further east across northern Saudi Arabia, with some also identified in southern Iraq for the first time.

Dr Fradley said: ‘The structures we found displayed evidence of complex, careful design. In terms of size, the ‘heads’ of the kites can be over 100 metres wide, but the guiding walls (the ’strings’ of the kite) which we currently think gazelle and other games would follow to the kite heads can be incredibly long. In some of these new examples, the surviving portion of walls run in almost straight lines for over 4 kilometres, often over very varied topography. This shows an incredible level of ability in how these structures were designed and built.’

Evidence suggests considerable resources would have had to be coordinated to build, maintain, and rebuild the kites over generations, combined with hunting and returning butchered remains to settlements or camps for further preservation.

The researchers suggest that their exaggerated scale and form may be an expression of status, identity and territoriality. Appearances of the kites in rock art found in Jordan suggest they had an important place within the symbolic and ritual spheres of Neolithic peoples in the region.

Desert kite research is a very active field just now – Michael and colleagues explore a significant extension to their distribution pattern, which has major implications for our understanding of the relationship of the kite builders with new mobile pastoralists and the occupation of the region.

Bill Finlayson, Director of EAMENA and Professor of Prehistoric Archaeology at the University of Oxford 

From the design of the kite heads to the careful runs of guiding walls over long distances, these structures contrast markedly in scale with any other evidence of architecture from the early Holocene period.

The researchers suggest that the builders of these kites dwelt in temporary structures made from organic materials that have left no trace visible on current satellite imagery data. 

These new sites suggest a previously unknown level of connection right across northern Arabia at the time they were built. They raise exciting questions about who built these structures, who the hunted game was intended to feed, and how the people were able to not only survive but also invest in these monumental structures.

In the context of this new connectedness, the distribution of the star-shaped kites now provides the first direct evidence of contact through, rather than around, the Nafud desert. This underlines the important of areas that are now desert under more favourable climatic conditions in enabling the movement of humans and wildlife. It is thought the kites were built during a wetter, greener climatic period known as the Holocene Humid Period (between around 9000 and 4000 BCE).

The largest number of kites were built on the Al Labbah plateau in the Nafud desert, where the absence of later Bronze Age burial monuments suggests that a shift into a drier period meant some of these areas became too marginal to support the communities once using these landscapes, with game species also potentially displaced by climate change.

Whether the patterns of kite construction over space and time represent the movement of ideas or people, or even the direction of that movement, remain questions to be answered.

The project, supported by the Arcadia Fund, is now extending its survey work across these now arid zones to further develop our understanding of these landscapes and the effect of climate change.

The study Following the herds? A new distribution of hunting kites in Southwest Asia is published in The Holocene.

Distribution of kite structures in the Levant and in northern Arabia. White: previously documented kites. Red: kites recorded by EAMENA.

8,000-Year-Old Neolithic Temple Discovered at Saudi Port Town

8,000-Year-Old Neolithic Temple Discovered at Saudi Port Town

The Saudi Heritage Commission has unveiled the archaeological discoveries made by a Saudi-international scientific team at the site of Al-Faw, located on the edge of Al-Rub’ Al-Khali (the Empty Quarter), south-west of Riyadh.

Visitors walk outside the tombs at the Madain Saleh antiquities site, al-Ula, Saudi Arabia February 10, 2019. Stephen Kalin, Reuters

A Saudi-led multinational team of archaeologists conducted a comprehensive survey of the site using state-of-the-art technology.

The study leveraged high-quality aerial photography; guided drone footage utilizing ground control points; a topographic survey; remote sensing, ground-penetrating radar; laser scanning; and geophysical survey, as well as extensive walkover surveys and sondages throughout the site, reported Saudi Press Agency (SPA).

Experts used photography, drone topographic surveying and geophysical surveying to discover the findings.

The survey has yielded several discoveries, the most significant of which are the remains of a stone temple and parts of an altar, where the locals of Al-Faw would have practised their rituals and ceremonies.

The rock-cut temple sits on the edge of Mount Tuwaiq, known as Khashem Qaryah, east of Al-Faw.

Rock drawings found etched on Tuwaiq Mountain depict daily activities, including hunting, travelling, and fighting.

Moreover, the remains of 8,000-year-old Neolithic human settlements have been discovered along with 2,807 graves of different periods dotted throughout the site, which have been documented and classified into six groups.

Several devotional inscriptions were found throughout the grounds, enriching our understanding of the religious belief system of the community that inhabited the site. Among these is the inscription in the Jabal Lahaq sanctuary addressed to the god Kahal, the deity of Al-Faw.

The significance of the inscription lies in its attribution to a family from the city of Al-Jarha and referring to the ancient name of the place where the sanctuary was built (Mount Tuwaiq).

The inscription indicates a relationship between the cities of Al-Faw and Al-Jarha – most likely commercial considering Al-Faw’s location on the ancient trade route. It may also imply either religious tolerance between residents of the two cities, or the worship of Al-Faw’s deity, Kahal, by some of the residents of Al-Jarha.

Though Al-Jarha was known for its wealth and economic power, its location has not yet been definitively identified, and several scholars associate it with the site of Thaj.

The discovery offers valuable data regarding the geographical distribution of Al-Faw’s sanctuaries, as well as revealing the foundations of four monumental buildings, some with corner towers. Their architecture, internal plans, and open-air courtyards suggest their use as resting places for trade caravans.

The archaeological study further uncovered a complex irrigation system, including canals, water cisterns, and hundreds of pits, dug by the residents of Al-Faw to bring rainwater to the agricultural areas. This may explain how the inhabitants of these lands overcame and adapted to the arid climate and minimal rainfall of one of the world’s harshest desert environments.

Extensive surveys and remote-sensing images have revealed several agricultural fields used to grow various crops to sustain residents.

Discoveries include a series of rock art and inscriptions carved on the face of Mount Tuwaiq, narrating the story of a man named Madhekar bin Muneim, and illustrating daily scenes of hunting, travel, and battle.

Fieldwork at Al-Faw had first been initiated by King Saud University in the 1970s in a study supervised by Prof. Abdulrahman Al-Ansari, lasting for over 40 years. The study uncovered many cultural aspects of the site, notably the residential and market areas, temples, and tombs. The results of these archaeological activities were later published in seven book volumes.

The new findings are a result of the Heritage Commission’s ongoing efforts to study, protect and preserve the nation’s cultural heritage sites. Research at the site will continue to build a greater understanding of the cultural landscape of Al-Faw archaeological area.

Inscription of last Babylonian king found in Saudi Arabia, ‘special’ message written in 26 lines?

Inscription of last Babylonian king found in Saudi Arabia, ‘special’ message written in 26 lines?

A 2,550-year-old inscription, written in the name of Nabonidus, the last king of Babylon, has been discovered carved on basalt stone in northern Saudi Arabia, the Saudi Commission for Tourism and National Heritage recently announced. 

An engraving at the top of the inscription shows King Nabonidus holding a sceptre alongside four other images that include a snake, a flower and a depiction of the moon, the commission said in a statement, noting that these symbols likely have a religious meaning. 

These engravings are followed beneath by about 26 lines of cuneiform text that experts with the commission are currently deciphering. This is the longest cuneiform inscription ever found in Saudi Arabia, the commission said in the statement. 

Inscription of last Babylonian king found in Saudi Arabia, ‘special’ message written in 26 lines?
The top of the inscription from the last king of Babylon shows engravings showing Nabonidus and four symbols.

The inscription was found in Al Hait in the Hail Region of northern Saudi Arabia. Known as Fadak in ancient times, Al Hait holds numerous ancient sites, including the remains of fortresses, rock art and water installations, the commission said. “[It] has great historical significance from the first millennium [B.C.] until the early Islamic era.” 

King Nabonidus

It remains to be seen what new information this inscription will provide on King Nabonidus (reign 555–539 B.C.).

The Babylonian Empire stretched from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean Sea, and at the start of Nabonidus’ reign, he conquered part of what is now Saudi Arabia and ultimately chose to live at Tayma, a city in what is now Saudi Arabia, until around 543 B.C. 

Why Nabonidus chose to live in what is now Saudi Arabia for an extended period of time is a matter of debate among historians, with some experts saying that conflicts between Nabonidus and Babylon’s priests and officials are a likely reason.

At the end of Nabonidus’ reign, the Babylonian Empire came under attack by the Persian Empire, which was led by King Cyrus the Great;

Babylon itself was captured by the Persians in 539 B.C. and the Babylonian empire collapsed. The fate of Nabonidus after the collapse is unclear. 

4,500-year-old avenues lined with ancient tombs discovered in Saudi Arabia

4,500-year-old avenues lined with ancient tombs discovered in Saudi Arabia

A vast 4,500-year-old network of ‘funerary avenues’ lined with well-preserved Bronze Age tombs has been uncovered in Saudi Arabia. In a new paper, researchers detail the arrangement of around 18,000 tombs, spanning thousands of miles in the Saudi Arabian counties of Al-‘Ula and Khaybar.

They consist of small piles of stone arranged in elaborate shapes, marking the spot where either single individuals or small groups were buried, experts say.

The burials are described as ‘pendant’ tombs because they resemble circular pieces of jewellery attached to a chain, or ‘tail’.

University of Western Australia archaeologists describes ancient highways in their new paper. Pictured is a dense funerary avenue with ‘wedge-tailed’ pendants and infilled ringed cairns, emanating from Khaybar Oasis in Saudi Arabia
The tombs as described as ‘pendant’ because they resemble circular pieces of jewellery, or ‘heads’, attached to a chain, or ‘tail’
Small piles of stone arranged in elaborate shapes (pictured) mark the spot where either single individuals or small groups were buried

Pendant tombs are already known to have yielded human remains dating to as early as the mid-third millennium BC, during the Bronze Age. 

In total, the experts have observed around 18,000 tombs along ‘funerary avenues’ – long-distance ‘corridors’ linking oases and pastures lined by burials – only 80 of which have been sampled or excavated. 

It’s thought that the tombs may have been built as memorials (‘cenotaphs’) or for other, as yet unclear symbolic or ritual purposes. 

Dr Matthew Dalton, from the University of Western Australia’s School of Humanities, is the lead author of the findings. He and his team used satellite imagery, helicopter-based aerial photography, ground survey and excavation to locate and analyse the funerary avenues.

‘The people who live in these areas have known about them for thousands of years,’ Dr Dalton told CNN. 

‘But I think it wasn’t really known until we got satellite imagery that just how widespread they are.’

Desert regions of the Arabian Peninsula and the Levant are known to be criss-crossed by innumerable pathways, flanked by stone monuments, the vast majority of which are ancient tombs. Thousands of miles of these paths and monument features, collectively known as ‘funerary avenues’, can be traced across the landscape, especially around and between major perennial water sources. 

Funerary avenues were the major highway networks of their day, according to Dr Dalton. Their existence today shows that the populations living in the Arabian Peninsula 4,500 years ago were more socially and economically connected to one another than previously thought.  

Researchers found that the highest concentrations of funerary monuments on these avenues were located near permanent water sources. 

The direction of the avenues indicated that populations used them to travel between major oases, including those of Khaybar, Al-‘Ula and Tayma.

Lesser avenues fade into the landscapes surrounding oases, suggesting the routes were also used to move herds of domestic animals into nearby pastures during periods of rain.

The researchers used satellite imagery, helicopter-based aerial photography, ground survey and excavation to locate and analyse the funerary avenues

‘These oases, especially Khaybar, exhibit some of the densest concentrations of funerary monuments known worldwide,’ Dr Dalton said.

‘The sheer number of Bronze Age tombs built around them suggests that populations had already begun to settle more permanently in these favourable locations at this time.’  

READ ALSO: THOUSANDS OF HUMAN AND ANIMAL BONES HOARDED BY HYENAS IN LAVA TUBE SYSTEM, SAUDI ARABIA

Continued excavation and analysis of human remains within these monuments will be essential going forward, according to the researchers.

‘Primary inhumations, where identifiable and suitably preserved, may reveal the demographics of those for whom avenue monuments were originally constructed, allowing better reconstructions of these societies and their funerary practices,’ they say. 

The findings have been published in the journal The Holocene. 

Archaeologists in Saudi Arabia excavate ‘forgotten kingdoms’

Archaeologists in Saudi Arabia excavate ‘forgotten kingdoms’

Amid the arid desert and mountains of Al Ula in northwest Saudi Arabia, archaeologists are working to excavate the remnants of the ancient and long-forgotten kingdoms of Dadan and Lihyan.

Spanning roughly 900 years until 100 CE, the ancient Saudi kingdoms controlled vital trade routes, but little is known about them.

Al Ula, a flagship tourist destination since it opened in 2019, is known chiefly for the majestic tombs of Madain Saleh, a 2,000-year-old city carved into rocks by the Nabateans, the pre-Islamic Arab people who also built Petra in neighbouring Jordan.

A team of French and Saudi archaeologists is now focused on excavating five nearby sites related to the Dadanite and Lihyanite civilisations, important regional powers that flourished 2,000 years ago.

“It’s a project that really tries to unlock the mysteries of (these) civilisations,” said Abdulrahman Al-Sohaibani, who is co-directing the Dadan archaeological mission.

A French archaeologist and his co-workers carefully clean the pottery to examine the findings known to be from Dadan and Lihyan civilisation.

Dadan is mentioned in the Old Testament and the Lihyanite kingdom was one of the largest of its time, stretching from Medina in the south to Aqaba in the north in modern-day Jordan, according to the Royal Commission for the project.

Spanning roughly 900 years until 100 CE, the kingdoms controlled vital trade routes but very little is known about them. The team is hoping to learn more about their worship rituals, social life and economy.

Previous excavations had been limited to the main sanctuary area, said Jerome Rohmer, a researcher with the French National Center for Scientific Research.

“We would just like have a comprehensive overview of the chronology of the site, the layout of the site, its material culture, its economy,” Rohmer added.

READ ALSO: THOUSANDS OF HUMAN AND ANIMAL BONES HOARDED BY HYENAS IN LAVA TUBE SYSTEM, SAUDI ARABIA

“It’s a comprehensive project where we’re basically trying to answer all of these questions.”

In Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s push to transform Saudi Arabia’s economy and society, Al-Ula has gained prominence. The kingdom is banking on tourism as it tries to open up to the world and diversify its economy away from oil.

Al-Ula’s development is part of a move to preserve pre-Islamic heritage sites in order to attract non-Muslim tourists and strengthen national identity.

Life-sized camel carvings in Northern Arabia date to the Neolithic period

Life-sized camel carvings in Northern Arabia date to the Neolithic period

This close-up image shows one of the camel carvings, revealing the body, legs and base of the neck of an adult camel with a possible young equid to the left.

A parade of life-size stone camel carvings in northern Arabia dates back to the Stone Age, new research finds. The 21 camels and horse-like figures were found in 2018 in the province of Al-Jouf in the northwestern Saudi desert. Researchers first believed that the carvings were about 2,000 years old, in part because they look similar to rock reliefs found in the famous stone city of Petra in Jordan. 

New dating efforts reveal that the carvings are much older: They date back 8,000 years. They were probably carved between 6000 B.C. and 5000 B.C. when the region was wetter and cooler.

At the time, the landscape was a grassland punctuated with lakes, where camels, horses and their relatives roamed wild, the researchers said. Humans herded flocks of cattle, sheep and goats — and apparently created great works of art. 

The carvings are chiselled into naturally occurring rocks at the site, and they often seem to meld with the natural grain of the rock. Their creation would have required tools made of a stone called chert, which would have come from at least 9 miles (15 kilometres) away.

Artists who took on the laborious job of carving each animal would have needed some sort of scaffolding and a couple of weeks’ time to complete, according to researchers from the Saudi Ministry of Culture, the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, the Centre National de la recherche Scientifique in France and King Saud University.

Life-sized camel carvings in Northern Arabia date to the Neolithic period
At the Camel Site in northern Arabia, viewed from the northwest, researchers identified several large carvings or reliefs of camels and horses (red stars), small reliefs (white stars) and large fragments (stars with red outline).
Panel 1 showing the belly, thigh and upper tail of a camel. Tool marks can be seen on the lower abdomen and the upper thigh, as well as a series of deep grooves. Detail photographs are shown on the lower left and lower right.

“Neolithic communities repeatedly returned to the Camel Site, meaning its symbolism and function was maintained over many generations,” said Maria Guagnin, an archaeologist at the Max Planck Institute for Science of Human History, who led the new research.

The study was published Wednesday (Sept. 15) in the Journal of Archaeological Science Reports.

The carvings are quite eroded, meaning that dating them was difficult. The researchers used multiple lines of evidence to do so, ranging from the tool marks in the rock to the radiocarbon dating of bones found in related rock layers. (Radiocarbon dating uses the radioactive decay of certain carbon molecules to mark time, but it requires organic material for the analysis.) 

The researchers also measured the density of the desert varnish on the rocks using a technique called portable X-ray fluorescence spectrometry.

Desert varnish is a mineral coating that forms on desert rocks over time.

Portable X-ray fluorescence spectrometry uses a handheld device to beam X-rays at a sample and non-destructively analyze the elements on its surface.

Finally, the team used luminescence dating of fragments that had fallen off the rock wall to determine when those fragments fell.

This method measures the amount of naturally occurring radiation in rocks and can reveal when rock was first exposed to sunlight or intense heat and how long it’s been acquiring radiation from the sun since that time. 

The new Neolithic, or Stone Age, date, puts the carvings in the context of other rock art made by pastoral people in northern Arabia, the researchers said in a statement.

These include large stone monuments called mustatil, which are made of sandstone walls surrounding a courtyard with a stone platform at one end. 

Periodic Prehistoric Rainfall Made Northern Arabia Navigable

Periodic Prehistoric Rainfall Made Northern Arabia Navigable

Excavations at the Jubbah oasis (shown) in northern Saudi Arabia produced stone tools that, along with nearby lake bed finds, indicate that hominids periodically trekked through the region starting around 400,000 years ago.

Arabia, known today for its desert landscape, served as a “green turnstile” for migrating Stone Age members of the human genus starting around 400,000 years ago, a new study finds.

Monsoon rains periodically turned northern Arabia into a well-watered oasis, creating windows of opportunity for long-ago humans or their relatives to trek through that crossroads region from starting points in northern Africa and southwest Asia.

That’s the implication of a series of five ancient lake beds of varying ages, each accompanied by distinctive stone tools, unearthed at a northern Saudi Arabian site called Khall Amayshan 4, or KAM 4. Sediments from the lake beds, which were linked to periods when the climate was wetter than today, also yielded fossils of hippos, wild cattle and other animals. Like hominids, those creatures must have migrated into the region along rain-fed lakes, wetlands and rivers, an international team reports online September 1 in Nature.

Until now, the oldest stone tools in Arabia dated to at least 300,000 years ago. Previous finds only hinted that Stone Age Homo sapiens or other Homo species temporarily inhabited green, wetter parts of Arabia, a conclusion largely resting on discoveries at two other Saudi sites, each preserving stone tools from a single point in time.

Aside from providing the earliest known evidence of hominids in Arabia, the new finds demonstrate for the first time that ancient Homo groups travelled there when conditions turned wet, say archaeologist Huw Groucutt of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Jena, Germany, and colleagues.

Evidence of hominid occupations at five ancient lake sites, each dated to a different Stone Age time, was found at northern Saudi Arabia’s Khall Amayshan 4 site (shown).

As a result, northern Arabia could have served as a key, if intermittent, passageway out of Africa for humans or close evolutionary relatives who reached South Asia by around 385,000 years ago, southern China between 120,000 and 80,000 years ago and the Indonesian island of Sumatra between 73,000 and 63,000 years ago.

The number, completeness and time frames of KAM 4’s ancient lake deposits make this site “one of a kind … that will continue to produce remarkable results,” says archaeologist Donald Henry of the University of Tulsa in Oklahoma, who did not participate in the new study.

Across five occupation phases covering hundreds of thousands of years, different Homo species or closely related populations at KAM 4 “were doing broadly the same things,” Groucutt says. Small groups camped by lakes where individuals made stone tools for food preparation, hunting and woodworking.

But each phase, dated mainly by a technique that estimated the amount of time since grains of lake sediment had last been exposed to sunlight, had its own evolutionary character.

For example, the identity of the KAM 4 crowd 400,000 years ago, who left behind large hand axes, is unclear, but the researchers know it couldn’t have been H. sapiens. Our species didn’t originate until roughly 300,000 years ago in Africa. One possibility is that those ancient Arabians represented a now-extinct Homo population from southwest Asia that later migrated into Africa, possibly contributing to H. sapiens evolution, Groucutt speculates.

Members of an unidentified Homo group left behind stone hand axes such as this one (shown from different angles) along the shore of a northern Arabian lake about 400,000 years ago.

Similar but slightly smaller, more finely worked hand axes turned up along the shore of a roughly 300,000-year-old KAM 4 lake bed, indicating the second phase of occupation. Groucutt and colleagues doubt that early H. sapiens from Africa scurried over to KAM 4 in time to make those tools. Whichever Homo group did could have come either from northern Africa or southwest Asia, the researchers say.

The third round of KAM 4 occupants, probably H. sapiens, fashioned artefacts excavated at an approximately 200,000-year-old lake bed, Groucutt says. These finds consist of rock chunks shaped so that sharp flakes, also unearthed there, could be pounded off. Humans based in northeastern Africa around that time made similar tools. Some of those people may have reached Arabia before eventually journeying to southwest Asia, Groucutt suggests.

Groucutt’s group excavated comparable tools at a site called Jubbah about 150 kilometres east of KAM 4 that date to around 210,000 years ago.

Those finds are another sign of human migrations into Arabia at a time when the corresponding KAM 4 lakebed shows that wet conditions reigned. Additional stone tools unearthed at Jubbah date to around 75,000 years ago.

Stone implements resembling the Jubbah finds were also excavated at the youngest two KAM 4 sites, one dating to between about 125,000 and 75,000 years ago and the other to roughly 55,000 years ago. The older site likely hosted H. sapiens, possibly a group that left Africa, Groucutt suggests.

The youngest KAM 4 artefacts could represent either H. sapiens or Neandertals, he says. Neandertals reached the Middle East about 70,000 years ago and could have reached a green Arabia by 55,000 years ago. If so, Neandertals may have interbred with H. sapiens in Arabia, a possibility not raised before.

Despite uncertainties about which hominids reached KAM 4 during its green phases, KAM 4 tools generally look more like similarly aged African tools than artefacts previously found in southern Arabia or at eastern Mediterranean sites, says Henry, the University of Tulsa archaeologist.

Migrations out of Africa, he says, now appear more likely to have wended through northern Arabia rather than across the narrow Red Sea crossing to southern Arabia, often regarded as a major dispersal route for ancient humans.

Thousands of human and animal bones hoarded by hyenas in lava tube system, Saudi Arabia

Thousands of human and animal bones hoarded by hyenas in lava tube system, Saudi Arabia

Although hyenas look and hunt like canines, they’re members of the mongoose family and therefore more closely related to a cat. However, just like dogs, hyenas have an affinity for hiding bones — it’s just that they can tend to go a bit overboard.

Thousands of human and animal bones hoarded by hyenas in lava tube system, Saudi Arabia
The Umm Jirsan lava tube in Saudi Arabia.

Case in point, archaeologists were left speechless after they stumbled across a lava tube cavern in northwestern Saudi Arabia that is packed with hundreds of thousands of bones gathered by striped hyenas over the course of 7,000 years.

The ultimate hoarders

The gruesome floor filled with ancient animal bones was found deep in a lava tube system — a network of caverns carved by lava flow. The site, known as Umm Jirsan, was discovered in 2007, but it was only recently that researchers ventured deep into the dark caverns.

Mathew Stewart, a zooarchaeologist at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Germany, led a team of researchers who catalogued nearly 2,000 bones and teeth belonging to at least 14 different species, including cattle, horses, camels, rodents, and even humans.

Hundreds of thousands of other bones that are yet to be analyzed still lie on the cavernous floor.

Radiocarbon dating of the samples suggests the animal remains range from 439 to 6,839 years ago, which can only mean these lava tubes had been used as dens for at least 6,000 years.

Images of Saudi Arabia’s Umm Jirsan “hyena cave”: A: Entrance to the western passage and surrounding area. B: Entrance to the western passage. Note the team members on the right-hand wall for scale. C: The back chamber in which the excavation was carried out. D: Plotted sampling square before surface collection and excavation. Credit: Archaeological and Anthropological Sciences.

The striped hyena (Hyaena hyaena) is a bit smaller than spotted and brown hyenas. They have a broad head with dark eyes, a thick muzzle, and large, pointed ears, with a mane of long hair growing along the back.

Their most striking feature is the legs: the front legs are much longer than the hind legs. This gives hyenas their distinctive walk, making them seem like they’re always limping uphill.

Hyenas are nocturnal or crepuscular predators that stay out of sight during the day, preferably in a natural cave or a burrow dug into the hillside. Sometimes they may take over the dens of other creatures where they transport bones to be eaten, fed to the young, or cached for later use.

It’s a well-established fact that hyena dens aren’t tidy at all, being normal to find leftover bones scattered across the floor. However, the lava tube horde stunned even the researchers who were most familiar with the hyenas.

Hyenas will eat an entire human body — except for the skull cap

Although they didn’t find hyenas at the site, the researchers are certain this was one of their dens judging from the cuts, bites, and digestion marks left on the bones.

The presence of human skull fragments was also telling of hyena presence since the animals are known to scavenge through burial grounds in search of food. They normally will consume everything except for the top of the skull.

“The size and composition of the bone accumulation, as well as the presence of hyena skeletal remains and coprolites, suggest that the assemblage was primarily accumulated by striped hyena (Hyaena hyaena),” the authors wrote in a study published in the journal Archaeological and Anthropological Sciences.

Molars and mandibles belonging to wild cows, rabbits, wild goats, camels, and wolves.

It’s highly unlikely that the six skullcaps with gnaw marks on them found at the site belong to humans who were killed by a hyena hunting party.

The mammals are mostly scavengers but when they do hunt they prefer to target hares, birds, and antelopes. However, the possibility that some hunter-gatherers were killed by hyena packs cannot be entirely ruled out.

Today, striped hyenas are a threatened species in Saudia Arabia but thousands of years ago they were common across the Arabian Peninsula.

The current investigation at Umm Jirsan was undertaken as part of the Paleo deserts Project, a large-scale research initiative aimed at tracking environmental and climate change in the Arabian Desert region over the past one million years.

Of particular interest is how human and animal migration in the region waxed and waned with the changing climate. This is a challenging goal since the unforgiving desert climate in the region tends to destroy any exposed organic matter.  Luckily, the Umm Jirsan lava tubes create a perfect time capsule that will give scientists material to work with for years to come.