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Mass Killings of Gazelles Marked Rise of Human Civilization

Death traps. Migrating gazelles were caught and slaughtered in long stone structures called desert kites (upper right.) Credit: Nigel Cattlin/Alamy; (map insets) Google Earthclass="articleImage"The mass killing of wildlife by humans is not a modern phenomenon. A new study concludes that around the time the first cities were founded in the Near East, people herded hundreds of gazelles into long stone passageways that ended in circular pits, where they would slaughter every animal. These massive hunts may have been rich with symbolism at the time, yet the authors argue that they have left the gazelles of the Near East a highly endangered species today.

Gazelles were the favorite prey of hunter-gatherers who lived in the Near East—an area that includes modern-day Israel, the Palestinian territories, Egypt, Jordan, and Syria—before farming began about 11,000 years ago. But there is little evidence that their numbers declined at that time. And when early farmers began domesticating cattle, sheep, and goats, the gazelle's importance as food declined rapidly.

Yet the three gazelle species still found today in the Near East—mountain gazelle, dorcas gazelle, and Persian gazelle—are all endangered. Historical records, based on eyewitness accounts, attest that Bedouin tribes used the long stone walls, known as desert kites and which ranged for up to tens of kilometers, to wantonly slaughter migrating gazelle herds in the 19th and early 20th centuries, much as settlers of the American West massacred buffalo and the antelope-like pronghorn around the same time.

But some researchers have suspected that such practices began thousands of years ago. They think that the hundreds of mysterious desert kites found in the Near East were used to corral and kill wild gazelles and other animals. Scientists have had a hard time figuring out when the kites were used, however, because they contain few traces of organic materials such as bone and charcoal that can be radiocarbon dated.
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TAGGED: PALEONTOLOGY


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