Archaeologists have discovered the oldest known architectural plans to scale in human history, which were engraved in stone some 8,000 to 9,000 years ago by Neolithic peoples in Jordan and Saudi Arabia that built giant megastructures to capture wild game, reports a new study.
The discovery exposes a major milestone in the evolution of human cognition and megastructure development, and may have broad implications for understanding the origins of modern civilization.
The engravings display nearby constructions called desert “kites,” named for their kite-like shape, that served as enormous animal traps built from stone walls that stretch for miles in some cases. As the earliest examples of accurate blueprints, the items represent a cognitive breakthrough that would eventually give rise to skyscrapers, spacecraft, and all other real-world objects that are now built with the guidance of a schematic.
Humans have created captivating representations of the world for tens of thousands of years, including vivid scenes painted on cave walls and symbolic figures whittled into sculptures. Our species has also built megalithic architectural structures for at least 10,000 years, including the more than 6,000 kites that span the Middle East, Caucasia, and Central Asia.
Prior to the new discovery, the oldest evidence of accurate scale models dated back about 5,000 years to Mesopotamia and Ancient Egypt. How earlier cultures built huge structures—including kites that can only be fully seen from the sky—has remained a mystery.
An international team of scientists has now pushed the timeline of this field back by several millennia with “the exceptional discovery of the up-to-now oldest realistic plans, engraved on stones, of some of these human-made archaeological mega-traps, from south-eastern Jordan and northern Saudi Arabia, the oldest of which are dated to 9,000 years ago,” according to a study published on Wednesday in the journal PLoS ONE.
“The discovery of these engravings was an amazing moment of archaeology,” said Wael Abu-Azizeh, an archeologist at the French Institute of the Near East who co-authored the study, in an email to Motherboard. “All of us were extremely excited when we found them! We were immediately astonished by the accuracy and level of detail of these drawings.”
The engravings were initially found in 2015 during pedestrian surveys of the Jibal al-Khashabiyeh region of Jordan and the Jebel az-Zilliyat region of Saudi Arabia. The Jordanian carving measures about 30 inches long 13 inches wide, and depicts a kite that was etched out with a stone hammer on a limestone block. The Saudi Arabian engraving is much larger, with dimensions of seven by 12 feet, and appears to have been pecked out, perhaps with a massive pick, on a sandstone boulder.
Both of the maps were located near the remains of desert kites made of long walled passages called “driving lines” that lead to large enclosures, forming the rough shape of a kite. Neolithic hunters used these buildings to lure animals, such as gazelles, into confined spaces where they could be more easily killed. Abu-Azizeh and his colleagues knew the engravings were kites by sight, but computer verification techniques revealed striking resemblances between the stone representations and the actual megastructures in their proximity.
“We very quickly understood the importance of these drawings, because we had knowledge about the nearby kites, their shape and organization, as well as their early dating,” Abu-Azizeh said. “We therefore were immediately surprised by the similarity of the drawing with the hunting desert kite structures. That’s how we realized that the engravings were actually accurate plans at scale” whereas “the quantitative comparison of the kite shape depicted on the drawings and the real kite plans confirmed this initial hypothesis.”
The unprecedented accuracy of these engravings differentiates them from earlier human proto-maps found in Spain, Ukraine, and the Czech Republic, which “are abstract representations, not scaled depictions of a landscape,” according to the new study.
The kite blueprints also open a window into the minds of their Neolithic creators, raising new questions about how these people were able to envision structures that can only be seen in their entirety with an aerial perspective.
“These engravings reflect a way of perceiving and conceiving space,” said Olivier Barge, an archaeologist at the French National Centre for Scientific Research who co-authored the study, in an email to Motherboard. “The engravings show human spatial representations that involve perceiving the world not by being ‘in the world’ but ‘above the world’ (even beyond).”
“This type of perception/representation is unusual if we consider civilizations over the long term,” he added. “It was thought until now that the first indication of this type of perception/conception dates back to the third millennium BC in Mesopotamia. These plans therefore bring it back much earlier... and this concerns populations of hunters, probably nomadic or semi-nomadic, and not necessarily literate societies as previously supposed.”
While the new discovery opens up many new research avenues, Abu-Azizeh, Barge, and their colleagues are most interested in learning more about the specific Neolithic peoples who pioneered stone blueprints to guide their construction projects some 8,000 years ago.
“For us, it only makes us want to know these populations better, their way of life, the way in which the hunting of gazelles on a large scale entered into their economic model, as we would say today,” Barge concluded. “For this period, hunting gazelles beyond the subsistence needs of the group, as was probably the case, is already a big question. We have work!”