'Desert kites' were key to survival 5,000 years ago

Wall-like formations were used for hunting, U. of Haifa researchers say.

desert kites (photo credit: Courtesy)
desert kites
(photo credit: Courtesy)
University of Haifa researchers have just unlocked a key piece of the mystery of ancient desert survival, as part of their research on "desert kites" in the Negev and Arava regions. The kites - so called because of their kite-like appearance to British pilots flying over the area in the early 1900s - resemble walls stretching over hundreds of meters of desert, meeting at angles with rounded trenches at the intersections. The study, headed by zooarcheologist Dr. Guy Bar-Oz, archeologist Dr. Daniel Nadel and landscape ecologist Dr. Dan Malkinson, found that these structures were made by ancient desert people over 5,000 years ago as mass hunting apparatuses. A number of such kites have been identified in Jordan, Syria, Israel and the Sinai. The archeological community has surmised that they were used for hunting purposes or as cattle pens. Now, after surveying 11 kites and conducting digs at four different kite locations - from Givat Barnea in the North to Eilat in the South - and utilizing cutting edge measuring devices, two radiometric methods of dating, and aerial and ground photography, the team has concluded that the kites were constructed specifically to direct wild animals along the walls and convey them toward the trenches, where they could be hunted with ease. "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," said Bar-Oz. "The prehistoric people living in this desert environment were highly capable of enduring it. They knew how to hunt and survive." According to data gathered at the sites, the kite "branches" spanned over 200 meters in length, some even surpassing a few kilometers. The walls of these branches were quite broad in both height and depth, leading researchers to conclude that kites were used to hunt large hoofed animals, such as rams and wild asses. Some kites were constructed with elevated stages that probably served to conceal the large trenches below and heighten the leaping wall. These findings are significant in classifying desert kites, as well as shedding light on the capabilities and strategies of our ancient predecessors. As kites were located exclusively at crossroads of migration routes, "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," said Nadel. "We were not taken by surprise by the technological ability; humans in that period were very similar to us in their capabilities. But nevertheless these were immense efforts," he said. "Some of the kites are spread across hundreds of meters, and the construction blocks of some of the traps are very large and heavy. We are definitely talking about wide-scope construction in a region that is challenging for survival."