How did humans living in the third millennium BCE manage to find sufficient quantities of meat in the arid desert regions? A new study of the "desert kites" that are spread across the expanses of Israel's Negev and Arava desert region, carried out by researchers from the University of Haifa, unearths the answer to this riddle.

Already in the early 20th century, British pilots flying over the Middle Eastern deserts identified strange forms spreading over hundreds of meters, sometimes even over a few kilometers. The shapes looked like two long walls that meet at angles and at the meeting point of each wall was a round-shaped trench.

A desert "kite" hunting trap in Israel

Israel news photos: University of Haifa

To the pilots, the shapes resembled kites, hence the name given to them: "desert kites." A few such "kites" are known of in the deserts of Jordan, Syria, Israel, and Sinai. Archaeologists have suggested a number of theories as to the uses of these constructs, most supposing that they were used for hunting purposes, others suggesting that they served as cattle pens.

A few weeks ago, an interdisciplinary research group, funded by National Geographic, completed an encompassing survey of all eleven "kites" of the Negev and Arava, which included archaeological digs in four "kites", detailed documentation by means of state-of-the-art measuring instruments, aerial and ground photography, and dating by means of two independent radiometric methods.

The study's findings have clearly shown that these "kites" were used as mass hunting apparatus, dating back no later than the third millennium BCE. "When standing in one of these kites, it is astounding to see how it fits into the landscape and how the wild animals' migration routes would converge into the hidden kite," stated Dr. Bar-Oz. "Only then can one grasp how much energy and strategic understanding were invested in its construction."

The kites' branches can reach over 200 meters in length. At the base of each kite, the branches converge and end in a chasm or large trench. On some of the kites, an elevated stage was erected, probably in order to heighten the leaping wall and perhaps to hide the trench that was dug beneath it.

According to the researchers, the hunting method involved directing the indigenous wild animals alongside the walled branches of the kite toward its tip and its trench, where hunters awaited them.

The height of the walls which sometimes reached over one meter, and their thickness testify that the apparatus were intended for hunting not only gentle animals, such as deer, but also larger hoofed animals like wild ass and rams.

The extensive study, which examined all eleven traps scattered from Givat Barnea in the north of the desert region to Eilat in the south, also exposed the thinking processes that were invested in planning each trap. "The traps were placed in locations where animal migration routes were concentrated into bottlenecks. There is no doubt that this reflects that the prehistoric inhabitants of the desert had a lot of knowledge: they knew the cattle migration routes very well and knew where to place each of the traps most efficiently," Dr. Nadel noted.

"We were not taken by surprise by the technological ability; humans in that period were very similar to us in their capabilities… We are definitely talking about wide-scope construction in a region that is challenging for survival."

The research was headed by a University of Haifa team: zooarchaeologist Dr. Guy Bar-Oz, archaeologist Dr. Daniel Nadel, and landscape ecologist Dr. Dan Malkinson. Also participating in the project were researchers from the Arava Institute, the Geological Institute in Jerusalem, the Weizmann Institute in Rehovot, and Bar-Ilan University.