The unsustainable harvesting of wild animals has an ancient history.
About 5,000 years ago in the Middle East, hunters drove a species of gazelle to the edge of extinction by funneling entire herds into carefully constructed stone corrals, where the animals were easy prey.
That’s the theory of Smithsonian Institution archaeologist Melinda Zeder and two of her colleagues, who report stunning evidence of such a mass kill in modern-day Syria.
“It must have been one heck of a barbeque,” Zeder said. “The scale of it is really quite staggering.”
The people living in the Middle East 5,000 years ago subsisted on goats and sheep while developing early agriculture.
But every spring, herds of Persian gazelle thundered from breeding grounds in the south, near the Arabian peninsula, to the lush green steppe in the north, where the animals gave birth. In August, the herds roared back south.
The migrations presented two annual opportunities for the crafty ancients. So they augmented their spears, bows and arrows with new hunting technology: stone corrals that flared out into two long, low walls, which acted as funnels.
Hundreds of these structures — called kites, for their shape as seen from the air — dot the entire Levant, from Arabia up through northern Syria.
Zeder said the kites invariably appear in low spots or other areas ideal for channeling herds of animals.
For decades, archaeologists debated the kites’ function. The discovery of ancient rock art near some of the kites provided a firm clue. The paintings show what look like human figures driving horned animals into circular pens.
But until now, no hard evidence of a mass kill of the gazelles had surfaced.
Zeder said she and her colleagues have found “the smoking arrowhead”— a pile of 3,000 gazelle toe bones found in a thin layer just a few miles from still-standing kites.
“It was almost like pavement,” she said of the densely-packed bones.
Carbon dating pegged the bone pile at 5,100 to 5,500 years old. Zeder and colleagues then carefully analyzed each toe bone, determing how many animals were present as well as their sex and age.
The team’s conclusion was that the bone pile held remains from at least 100 animals, adults and juveniles, and roughly equal numbers of males and females.
“It was a whole herd,” said Zeder, whose findings were published Monday in the journal the Proceedings of the National Academies.
Deep-cutting scars on the toe bones suggests initial butchering occurred after rigor mortis had set in, she said, meaning the animals had probably been transported to the butchering site — the nearby kites being the prime suspects for killing zones.
Zeder also reports 3-month-old gazelle baby teeth in the bone pile. Given that the gazelles birthed in the north in June, that tiny clue led her and colleagues to think the herd had been migrating south— as they once did every August — when the hunters spooked the flighty animals and drove them into the kite.
The operation must have been huge and impressive, said Natalie Munro, an archaeologist at the University of Connecticut who studies the ancient gazelles.
“You have people doing the driving, the runners, making noise, then you have individuals doing the dispatching, killing those animals, transporting them,” she said. “It entailed a lot of organization and many people doing different tasks, different jobs.”
But the feasts, which Zeder said were probably imbued with religious or other deep cultural significance, carried a toll.
About 1,000 years after the slaughter Zeder documented, the gazelles began to peter out in the region. Other local species that could have been corralled and killed en masse such as ostriches also disappeared. The huge number of kites in the region suggest such large-scale hunting was common.
“You just run out there once a year and you can get 100 animals,” Munro said. “This is like a cash grab.”
Now, just a few Persian gazelles roam the Middle East, but they don’t herd and migrate as they once did.
The lesson is obvious, Zeder said. “Wiping out the ability of that herd to regenerate is the thing that’s most significant. Wholesale slaughter of animals just isn’t sustainable.”