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The Oldest Architectural Plans Ever Discovered: Stone Age Blueprints

Aerial view of a desert kite from Jebel az-Zilliyat, Saudi Arabia

O. Barge, CNRS

Around 9000 years ago, architects created highly detailed plans of expansive stone-walled hunting traps, representing the earliest known architectural blueprints to scale in human history.

These plans were engraved onto massive stone tablets that were recently discovered near the intricate traps, known as desert kites, which are so extensive that their shapes can only be recognized from above. The findings confirm that Neolithic humans had a remarkable understanding of landscapes and space, even before they developed written language, according to Rémy Crassard at the French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS).

Crassard states, “There’s no doubt that these Homo sapiens had the same level of intelligence as we do, but this is the first concrete evidence we have of their spatial perception. It demonstrates how deeply embedded this way of thinking was in their culture.”

The kites in Saudi Arabia and Jordan feature funneling lines as long as 5 kilometers and up to 10 pointed branches that lead to pits up to 4 meters deep. Originally named “kites” by airplane pilots who first spotted them from the air in the 1920s and thought they resembled toy kites, the structures likely enticed gazelles or other wild prey into narrower areas where they would be trapped or fall, explains Wael Abu-Azizeh at the French Institute for the Near East.

A stone at Jibal al-Khashabiyeh, Jordan, engraved with a plan of a desert kite

SEBAP & Crassard et al. 2023 PLOS ONE

Despite the complexity of these Stone Age structures, the few artistic representations of them discovered so far have been rough abstract sketches. Previously, it was believed that the oldest true architectural plans intended to be to scale dated back 2300 years ago to Mesopotamian civilizations.

In March 2015, Crassard and his colleagues stumbled upon an 80-centimeter-tall, 92-kilogram limestone tablet at an excavated campsite near a 9000-year-old kite in Jordan. The tablet contained detailed architectural plans etched into it. Surprisingly, three months later, they also found a second kite plan, this time etched into a 3.8-meter-tall sandstone boulder that had fallen from a cliff near a pair of 7500-year-old kites in Saudi Arabia.

Crassard recalls, “Finding one was already extraordinary, but finding two was even more exceptional. We were jumping and celebrating!”

To compare the engraved images with satellite images of 69 kites, the researchers used computer modeling and mathematical analysis. They discovered that the plans etched onto stone were remarkably accurate depictions of the actual kites within a 1 to 2 kilometer range, at scales of 1:175 and 1:425. The plans even included three-dimensional representations of pit traps used in the kites.

These plans may have assisted in the construction of the massive, intricate structures, but they might have also guided hunters in utilizing them effectively, suggests Abu-Azizeh.

This explanation seems plausible, says Sam Smith at Oxford Brookes University, UK, who was not involved in the study. Similar to football coaches drawing tactics on a whiteboard, members of the Neolithic community may have used these scale images to communicate and plan group hunting strategies. Smith adds, “I can easily imagine that these engravings would have been a crucial element of planning.”

The fact that the plans were engraved onto a “durable medium” suggests that they were meant to endure for future generations, Smith notes. He states, “New members of the community or hunting party would not have any way to comprehend the kites without these depictions.”

It remains perplexing how these ancient engineers achieved such geometric accuracy without modern tools like GPS or a tacheometer, remarks Olivier Barge, also at the CNRS. “We don’t know how they did it.”

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