Archaeologists in Saudi Arabia have discovered ancient human remains buried near hundreds of scattered animal bones in a 7,000-year-old desert monument, a ritual site used by a prehistoric cult.
The remains, those of an adult male in his thirties, were found in a mustatil, a structure that takes its name from the Arabic word for rectangle. The ruin is one of more than 1,600 mustatils discovered in Saudi Arabia since the 1970s. The structures, largely submerged under sand, were built when the Arabian desert was a lush grassland where elephants roamed and hippos bathed in lakes.
The builders of the mustatils were members of an unknown sect. As a change in climate slowly turned the land into desert, cultists likely banded together to protect it by sacrificing their livestock to unknown gods, researchers say. Now, a new mustatil dig, described in a study published March 15 in the journal PLOS Onehas revealed more details about the enigmatic structures and their worshipers lost in time.
“Almost nothing has been written about the mustatils and beliefs that surrounded them,” lead author of the study Melissa Kennedy, an archaeologist at the University of Western Australia told Live Science. “Only 10 mustatil have been excavated and this study is one of the first to be published. So we don’t know much about this tradition yet.”
Mustatils vary in appearance, but they are usually long rectangles formed from low rock walls about four feet high. Excavations have revealed complex structures in some of the ruins, including interior walls and pillars that give way to central chambers that may have been reserved for feasting and ritual sacrifice, Kennedy said.
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Worshipers entered the mustatils from one end and walked anywhere from 66 to 1970 feet (20 to 600 m) or more to the other, arriving at a rubble platform called the head. A chamber in the head housed a beytl – a sacred stone, sometimes derived from a meteorite – that cultists used to communicate with their gods.
Located 55 kilometers east of the ancient city of AlUla, the mustatil excavated by the researchers is 140 meters long and made of local sandstone. The beytl is a large upright stone, around which the researchers found 260 fragments of animal skulls and horns. The bone pieces are mainly from domestic cattle, though the researchers said some fragments belonged to domestic goats, gazelles and small ruminants.
“They would most likely have brought animals, possibly slaughtered them on the spot, offered the horns and upper parts of the skull to a deity, while possibly feasting on the rest of the remains,” Kennedy said. “We cannot be sure whether the slaughter took place on site or elsewhere as we have not found the rest of the animal. However, we think it most likely occurred on site as the horns, particularly the keratin – which are very breaks down quickly – were in such good condition. It suggests there was probably only a short period of time before the horns were removed and they were sacrificed in the mustatil.”
Immediately north of the mustatil’s head, the researchers found a cist, a type of burial chamber built in the Neolithic and Bronze Ages throughout Europe and the Middle East. Analysis of the man’s buried bones revealed that he was in his 30s or early 40s when he died and that he likely had osteoarthritis, a degenerative joint disease that is the most common form of arthritis. Radiocarbon dating of the human and animal bones showed that the man was buried 400 years after the animals were slaughtered – a sign that the mustatils were sites of repeated pilgrimages.
“We’re finding more and more evidence of people being buried in mustatils,” Kennedy said. “However, these burials are always later; they do not date from the same period as the animal sacrifices. We hypothesize that the mustatil sites retained their importance even after their disuse and that later generations would bury their dead in these sites as a way to assert ownership over these structures, essentially claiming a link to the past.”
The purpose of the mustatils’ ceremonies remains a mystery. Since the desert-spanning structures were built during the Holocene Humid Period—a phase that lasted between 7000 B.C. and 6000 BC. connection between the rituals practiced within these structures and a common desire to bless the drying land with rain.
They are now testing this hypothesis by geographically mapping the proximity of mustatils in prehistoric rangelands, rivers and lakes. The research, which is ongoing, could reveal links between ancient religious practices and the region’s primordial climate crisis.