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Beyond Stone & Bone

A Fatal Illusion
by Heather Pringle
April 30, 2010

I was really intrigued this week by a news story out of Israel that attracted very little attention in the media.   The story had nothing to do with biblical archaeology, was completely unrelated to Dead Sea Scrolls, and had no bearing at all on the increasingly bitter debate over the politicization of archaeology in Israel.  No, this was a story of a very different stripe.  It focused on some mysterious lines that stretch along the stony deserts of Israel, Egypt and Jordan.  The longest extends 40 miles.

Pilots in the region have long wondered what purpose these lines served.  Now a new study by Uzi Avner, an archaeologist at Ben-Gurion University-Eilat, proposes a very plausible answer.  In a paper to be published in the Journal of Arid Environments in July, Avner suggests that the low stone walls are funnel-shaped drive lanes that ancient hunters once used to drive herds of gazelles and other fleet-footed game into killing pits in natural hollows.

Archaeologists have found similar systems in many parts of the world, and I think they are among the most ingenious hunting techniques ever devised by prehistoric humans.  I’ve written about one of the most famous here before—5,700-year-old Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump in southern Alberta.  But for those who missed that,  I’ll just briefly recap how it worked.

Before the Spanish introduced horses to the Americas, Native Americans hunted bison on foot.  To do so, they constructed long funnel-shaped lines of stone cairns that led to the edge of a precipice.  On the appointed day,  a runner wearing a bison hide would lure an unsuspecting herd into the drive lanes and towards the precipice by imitating a bleating calf.  When the animals finally caught wind of danger, they began stampeding toward the cliff.

And here’s the part that has always fascinated me.  A continuous carpet of grass extends right to the cliff edge and seems to blend into the prairie in the far distance—an optical illusion of continuous ground.  So the front animals would have been unable to see the precipice that loomed ahead until it was too late.  Jack Brink,  an archaeologist at the Royal Alberta Museum in Edmonton has calculated that the hunters at Head-Smashed-In dispatched as many as 250 animals in one go—amassing nearly 145,000 pounds of meat.

But prehistoric hunters used similar systems to hunt all manner of game. Once,  while travelling by helicopter across a sweeping ridge in the northern Yukon, I spied two long lines of what seemed to be spaced, upright wooden logs, each casting a dark shadow on the ground.  My companion, Jacques Cinq-Mars, then an archaeologist at the Canadian Museum of Civilization, told me that it was a caribou fence,  for funneling the animals into a pound or corral where hunters could spear them.

All this, of course, raises an intriguing question.   When did humans first begin hunting in this clever fashion?  No one really knows, but in 1978 American archaeologist Thomas Kehoe noticed something very familiar in the 17,000-year-old cave art of Lascaux in France.  Kehoe, who was then teaching at the University of Tübingen in Germany,  had spent seven years living with the Blackfeet tribe in Montana, and he had made a particular study of ancient bison hunting.

As Kehoe gazed at the south wall of Lascaux’s Axial Gallery, he noticed two dotted lines funneling into a painted rectangle.  The dots resembled stone cairns and the lines looked suspiciously like a drive lane leading to a trap—a rectangular corral. Kehoe looked more closely.  A herd of horses—a favorite prey of some Upper Paleolithic hunters—appeared to be stampeding through the lanes.

Standing back, Kehoe noticed paintings of bovines,  ibexes and reindeer skidding into four other corrals.  And the more he looked around,  the more he felt at home.  Even a controversial two-horned figure in the main Rotunda struck a familiar chord.  “It looked more like a man in some sort of camouflage,” Kehoe once told me.  “I think he is the runner bringing them in.”

I think this form of communal hunting  is very, very old.   And the story out of Israel this week adds another cool chapter to its history.

Photo from Ben-Gurion University-Eilat

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11 comments for "A Fatal Illusion"

  • Reply posted by Tweets that mention Archaeology Magazine Blog - Beyond Stone and Bone » A Fatal Illusion -- Topsy.com (May 1, 2010, 10:11 pm):

    [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by bldgblog, Andrew Korf, Archaeology Magazine, luxifurr, Jaime Rosen and others. Jaime Rosen said: RT @bldgblog: Ancient kill-lines in Israel, up to 40 miles long & visible from the air, explained as prehistoric landscape for hunters: http://is.gd/bPjqS [...]

         

  • Reply posted by Jean M. Kaufmann (May 3, 2010, 5:58 am):

    I just saw Jack Brink and Alice Kehoe this past weekend in Calgary, Alberta at a conference for the Canadian Archaeological Association and the Archaeological Society of Alberta. It is always nice to see articles about people and places that you know. Thank you.

         

  • Reply posted by Susan Goldstein (May 3, 2010, 4:54 pm):

    As some people say “I’m half Irish” or “I’m half Italian”, well, I always say “I’m half engineer”. Thanks Dad. And I feel a deep connection to problem solvers in past millenia as they looked at their needs and their tools and resources, and came up with an elegant solution. Ahhhh, it pleases my soul.

         

  • Reply posted by Dave Evans (May 5, 2010, 3:14 pm):

    Hi Heather,
    glad to see you are back. Was afraid the long silence was not a good sign. Always enjoy your insights

         

  • Reply posted by Patricia Griffin (May 7, 2010, 3:10 am):

    It seems to me, that if these are actually pit traps, there should be bone pits at the terminus. Has this been checked?

         

  • Reply posted by Andrew (May 12, 2010, 5:58 am):

    I literally gasped out loud when I read “Even a controversial two-horned figure in the main Rotunda struck a familiar chord” and knew where this was about to go. I cannot wait to get home and look for the possible drive lanes in Aujoulat’s Lascaux book.

         

  • Reply posted by Dan Ballenger (May 12, 2010, 6:42 am):

    That is brilliant. It goes with my assertion that Stone Age man was no less intelligent than present day humans. We are just building on past innovations. For some reason, the idea of an intelligent Neolithic human makes a lot of people angry, and they ignore clear and obvious examples.

         

  • Reply posted by James D. King (May 17, 2010, 1:01 pm):

    The drive lanes were also used on fish. In America many rivers have “Vee” shaped lanes of stones placed by native Americans. The wide end would be up stream to the current. The narrow end would have a woven tapering basket covering the exit. Fish would be funneled into the baskets for the native Americans to harvest. Obviously these fish traps would be built and used in the summers when the water levels were low and fish plentiful.

         

  • Reply posted by Colleen Davick (May 23, 2010, 8:04 pm):

    Very interesting article – thank you!

         

  • Reply posted by James D. Andrew (June 1, 2010, 2:08 am):

    what a intellegent method to trap the game in the Neolithic Age when it is difficult for the hunter to take the animals without a gun, as is common in American today!
    Does it suggest that it had been a grassland rather than a desert in Israel in the ancient time when the funnel-shaped drive lanes were built?

         

  • Reply posted by Aileen Baron (June 25, 2010, 10:46 pm):

    I hate to burst your bubble, but desert kites in the Negev and Jordan have been recognized as traps for hunting gazelle and other animals since at least the 1970′s, when I wrote my dissertation on the archaeology of the Negev.

         


About Our Blogger:

Heather Pringle is a freelance science journalist who has been writing about archaeology for more than 20 years. She is the author of Master Plan: Himmler's Scholars and the Holocaust and The Mummy Congress: Science, Obsession, and the Everlasting Dead. For more about Heather, see our interview or visit www.lastwordonnothing.com.

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