Archaeologists in Saudi Arabia have discovered ancient human remains buried alongside hundreds of scattered animal bones inside a 7,000-year-old desert monument, a ritual site used by a prehistoric cult.
The remains of an adult male around the age of 30 were found inside a mustatil, a structure whose name comes from the Arabic word for rectangle. The ruins are one of more than 1,600 mustatils discovered in Saudi Arabia since the 1970s. The structures, mostly buried in sand, were built when The Arabian desert was a lush meadow where elephants roamed and hippos bathed in lakes.
The builders of the mustatils were members of an unknown cult. The researchers say that as climate change slowly turned the land into a desert, cult members likely gathered to protect it by sacrificing their livestock to unknown gods. Now the new excavations of Mustatil, detailed in a study published March 15 in the journal. PLOS Onerevealed more details about the mysterious structures and their admirers, lost in time.
“Almost nothing has been written about the mustatils and the beliefs that surrounded them,” lead author of the study. Melissa Kennedy, an archaeologist at the University of Western Australia, told Live Science. “Only 10 mustatils have been excavated, and this study is one of the first published. So we still don’t know much about this tradition.”
Mustatils vary in their appearance, but are usually long rectangles formed from low stone walls about 4 feet (1.2 meters) high. Excavations have revealed complex structures within some of the ruins, including interior walls and columns that give way to central chambers that may have been for feasting and ritual sacrifice, Kennedy said.
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Believers entered mustatils from one end and walked 66 to 1,970 feet (20 to 600 m) or more to the other, reaching a platform of rubble called the head. The chamber inside the head contained a baitl, a sacred stone, sometimes derived from a meteorite, that the cult members used to communicate with their gods.
Mustatil, excavated by explorers, located 34 miles (55 km) east of the ancient city of Al-Ula, is 460 feet (140 m) long and built from local sandstone. His baitl is a large upright stone, around which the researchers found 260 fragments of animal skulls and horns. Parts of the bone are mostly from livestock, although researchers say some of the fragments belonged to domestic goats, gazelles and small ruminants.
“Most likely, they brought animals with them, potentially slaughtered them on the spot, offered the horns and upper parts of the skull to the deity, and potentially could feast on the rest of the remains,” Kennedy said. “We cannot be sure if the massacre took place on the spot or somewhere else, as we did not find the rest of the animal remains. However, we think that this most likely happened on the spot, as the antlers, especially the keratin, which decomposes very quickly, were in such good condition. This suggests that it was probably only a short period of time before the removal of the horns and their placement in the mustatila.”
Directly north of the mustatil head, researchers discovered a chest, a type of burial chamber built during the Neolithic and Bronze Ages in Europe and the Middle East. Analysis of the buried bones belonging to the man showed that he was in his 30s or 40s when he died and that he probably had osteoarthritis, a degenerative joint disease that is the most common form of arthritis. Radiocarbon dating of human and animal bones showed that the man was buried 400 years after the animals were slaughtered – a sign that mustatils were places of repeated pilgrimage.
“We are finding more and more evidence that people were buried in mustatils,” Kennedy said. “However, these burials are always later; they do not belong to the same time period as the animal sacrifices. We assume that the sites of mustatils retained their significance even after their use ceased, and that later generations buried their dead in these places as sacrifices. a way to assert ownership of these structures by essentially claiming a link to the past.”
The purpose of the mustatils ceremonies remains a mystery. Since the structures spanning the desert were built during the wet period of the Holocene, a phase that lasted between 7000 and 6000 B.C. the connection between the rituals practiced inside these structures and the general desire to bless the drying earth with rain.
Now they are testing this hypothesis by plotting geographical maps on the proximity of the mustatils to prehistoric pastures, rivers and lakes. The ongoing investigation may reveal a link between ancient religious practices and a primeval climate crisis in the region.