Mysterious 7,000-year-old stone structures may be part of prehistoric cattle cult

New research suggests that some mustatils, which are rectangular structures strewn across Arabia, may have been part of a prehistoric cult. (Image credit: Photograph © AAKSA and Royal Commission for AlUla, courtesy Antiquity)

Sprawling rectangular structures scattered across northwest Arabia and dating back more than 7,000 years may have been part of a prehistoric cattle cult, researchers have found. More than 1,000 of the mysterious structures, referred to as mustatils (an Arabic word meaning rectangle), have been documented in Saudi Arabia. While their appearance varies, they are usually rectangular in shape and often consisting of two platforms connected by two walls. Archaeological work indicates that some of the mustatils had a chamber in the center made of stone walls surrounding an open area with a standing stone in the center. The new research reinforces a theory proposed by other researchers that the mustatils had a ritualistic purpose and, in addition, provides evidence that they were part of a cattle cult. 

Melissa Kennedy, assistant director of the Aerial Archaeology in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia project (AAKSA) said, the mustatils of northwest Arabia represent the first large-scale, monumental ritual landscape anywhere in the world, predating Stonehenge by more than 2,500 years. 

More than 1,000 of these mustatils have been documented in Arabia, and they date back around 7,000 years.  (Image credit: Photograph © AAKSA and Royal Commission for AlUla, courtesy Antiquity)

A team of researchers wrote in a paper published April 30 in the journal Antiquity, these structures can now be interpreted as ritual installations dating back to the late sixth millennium B.C. with recent excavations revealing the earliest evidence for [a] cattle cult in the Arabian Peninsula. 

The team's research revealed that these monuments are architecturally more complex than previously supposed, featuring chambers, entranceways, and orthostats [upright stone slabs], the team wrote in the article. 

Some of the mustatils have been looted or damaged but in 2019, the team was able to excavate a mustatil that was undisturbed. They found that it contained a large number of cattle bones and horns as well as remains from sheep, goats, and gazelle. These remains were found in the center of a chamber which was constructed with stone walls beside a large upright stone, leading the team to believe that they were "offerings" from people participating in ritual activities associated with a cattle cult; this cult may have been dedicated to deities or supernatural forces associated with cattle.

Given that writing had not been invented at that time, researchers aren’t sure precisely the beliefs of such cattle cult followers. 

People may have made their way to the chamber through a procession. 

The team wrote in the Antiquity article said, the architecture of these mustatils suggests that their use involved an element of the procession. Their narrow entranceways indicate that the structures were accessed in a single file. 

The archaeologists also found rock art in the area and from the same time period that supports the idea that the mustatils were used as part of a cattle cult. The rock art shows scenes of both cattle herding and hunting.

The researchers said, the structures are so large and prominent in the landscape that a ritual function seems likely. In addition, the long walls are no higher than 1.6 feet (0.5 meters), meaning the structures couldn't have functioned as animal pens.

The discovery of cattle bones and horns inside the mustatils adds to evidence that the environment in the region was wetter around 7,000 years ago than it is today. 

Kennedy said, the environment was certainly much more humid during this period, we know this from palaeoclimatological data gathered from across the Arabian Peninsula. Cattle need a lot of water to survive, so by finding these amazingly well-preserved cattle horns in the mustatil we are starting to get a better understanding of what the Late Neolithic was like in this part of the Arabian Peninsula.

There are many more mysteries about the mustatils that remain to be solved. For instance, why were a few mustatils constructed on the slopes of volcanoes?

Hugh Thomas, the director of the project said, we are not quite sure why they were constructed on volcanoes. Perhaps, by placing some of these structures on prominent landscape features like volcanoes, they may have been used as landscape markers or perhaps territorial markers denoting pastoral grazing areas for specific groups. What is really interesting is that some mustatil are highly visible, whilst others are almost hidden. There appears to be almost no consistency in the placement, which is highly unusual.

The team plans to conduct more excavations in the future and study the structures using Geographic Information Systems (GIS), Thomas said. 

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