Kite-like lines on Mideast deserts were animal traps

A new study of 16 such kites in the eastern Sinai Desert confirmed that the low stone walls were formed to direct gazelle and other large game animals into killing pits. The strange lines -- first spotted by British pilots in the early 20th century on the deserts of Israel, Jordan and Egypt -- are believed to be over 2,300 years old, the Discovery Channel reported.

Usually found as angled pairs, the walls begin far apart and converge at circular pits. In some places in Jordan the lines formed chains up to 40 miles long, the report said. "The research shows that the construction of the kite was actually more sophisticated than it seemed before, their use was more diverse than we thought, and the ancients' knowledge of animal ethology was deeper and more intimate than one would think," said lead researcher Uzi Avner of Ben-Gurion University-Eilat in Israel.

"We have no doubt at all that the kites were built for hunting, not for any other suggested function." Earlier, researchers suspected the kites might be corrals for protecting domesticated animals, but that idea has fallen out of favour as more research has been done.

"The hunting theory is the most accepted, and it appears that for most kites this was indeed the use," said Dani Nadel, another kite researcher from the University of Haifa, Israel. "There are similar structures, either from wood or from stone, on most continents."

Interestingly, the walls of the kites are not high enough to actually block the animals. Rather, they just seem to channel herds in the right direction. Modern wildlife managers in the same region have used a similar approach by laying pipes on the ground to direct gazelles into a corral, Avner said.

A careful examination of not just the kites but their locations in relation to pastures and migration routes makes it very clear that desert kites were specialised for specific types of animals. Before the 20th century the region was home to several different species of gazelle, wild asses, hartebeests, oryxes, ibexes, dorcas and onagers.

Some kites cleverly exploited low spots in the landscape to lure animals into the unseen killing pit. "Indeed, the pit would have appeared to the animals in the funnel as an opening in the boundary walls of the kite through which they could flee," said Avner.

As for why the kites fell out of use, Nadal said it's still a bit of a mystery. "They were abandoned, in several south-Negev cases, by the beginning of the middle Bronze age. This may suggest a climatic change and or a shift in subsistence strategies." The new research will appear in the July issue of the Journal of Arid Environments.

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