Archaeologists have described what could be the oldest examples of construction plans in human history, chiseled into ancient stones in Jordan and Saudi Arabia between 7,000 and 8,000 years ago.
The engraved geometric patterns have been matched with neighboring desert megastructures built long before the pyramids of Giza, leading an international team of researchers to conclude they represent some kind of early blueprint guiding their creation.
From the view of a passing plane or satellite, the huge, ancient stone constructions form discernible shapes that utilize parts of the natural landscape. Those shaped like arrows are known as 'kites', and archaeologists suspect they represent massive hunting traps, designed to funnel wild herds into enclosures or even off of cliffs.
Thanks to a recent analysis of ancient stone engravings, we now have a clearer understanding of the design process behind these kites.
"The extreme precision of these engravings is remarkable, representing gigantic neighboring Neolithic stone structures, the whole design of which is impossible to grasp without seeing it from the air or without being their architect (or user, or builder)," write Rémy Crassard – an archaeologist at the French National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS) – and his colleagues in Saudia Arabia and Jordan.
"They reveal a widely underestimated mental mastery of space perception, hitherto never observed at this level of accuracy in such an early context."
The plans found in Saudi Arabia in 2015 cover a slab of stone measuring just under 4 meters in length, and were probably carved using hand picks roughly 8,000 years ago. They depict a pair of nearby desert kites separated by 3.5 kilometers (2.2 miles).
The engravings found in Jordan, meanwhile, were carved into an 80-centimeter-long block of limestone roughly 7,000 years ago. These engravings depict a kite similar in shape to the eight desert kites found in the nearby region.
Despite their massive size, desert kites only became known to modern academics in the 1920s when British air force pilots caught sight of them while flying above. Since then, over 6,000 have been tallied, dotting the Middle East and parts of Central Asia.
These vast megastructures are nearly twice as old as the Great Pyramids of Giza, and yet they've received only a fraction of the attention. The stone schemata were unearthed in 2015, and yet scientists have only now properly analyzed them.
"Until recently," the researchers write, "almost no in-depth studies had been carried out to enhance our understanding of their function … or why they were so widespread in many regions ranging from Arabia to Uzbekistan. "
Unfortunately, with such limited research their role in ancient society is still unclear, although there is a strong leading hypothesis that suggests desert kites were designed to capture or kill wild animals using mass hunting strategies.
The oldest was built at least 9,000 years ago. Back then, the Arabian Peninsula was much wetter and greener than it is today. Many 'desert' kites stood on what would have once been grassland, a useful foundation for corralling grazing herds.
The sophisticated megastructures also tend to form channels that lead to pits, cliffs, or pens.
Finding engraved plans for desert kites, which are the earliest stone-built mega-structures, is akin to finding blueprints for the pyramids.
The plans from Jordan are exceptionally accurate and clear to see. They are drawn to scale except for the pits at the ends of the kites, which are exaggerated in size. Drawing the pits larger might have made them easier to observe, or perhaps they were enlarged to emphasize their important role in hunting operations.
"Comparable plans, at least intended to be to scale, can only be found much later during the third and second millennia BC in Mesopotamia," Crassard and colleagues write.
What's more, these examples of early maps are not nearly as accurate as the kite engravings found in Saudi Arabia and Jordan.
Even today's best topographer would be "hard-pressed to produce a sketch of a kite as geometrically reliable as the engravings" without modern mapping tools, the researchers suggest.
"It would therefore seem that kite-building hunters knew how to use a surveying technique, still unknown to us, involving notions of measurement and even calculation."
There's even more mysteries behind desert kites than we thought.
The study was published in PLOS ONE.