Seven millennia ago, humans living in ancient Arabia built massive stone monuments where they sacrificed wild and domesticated animals as part of complex religious practices.
Those are the conclusions of researchers from the University of Western Australia digging in the AlUla region of Saudi Arabia as part of a five-year archaeological study funded by the regional government.
They excavated a massive stone mustatil – a kind of rectangular walled compound – measuring 140 metres, within which were found three betyls, or monument stones worshipped as houses of cultural gods.
This is consistent with earlier research into pre-Islamic Arabian cultures, described as ‘betyl cults’ which transported idols and worshipped at upright stones and natural rock formations said to be mediators between “humankind and the divine”.
At the foot of these betyls were the remains of livestock and hunted animals.
“It looks like cattle, goats and gazelles were brought to the site, potentially slaughtered there and then presented to what is probably a stone representation of an unknown deity,” says Dr Melissa Kennedy, an archaeologist at UWA.
This is not the only mustatil identified in the region – 1,600 have been found across northern Arabia through a combination of remote sensing, aerial and ground observations.
This, the researchers suggest, indicates the practices of these neolithic cults were widespread, which alters previously understood timelines for these cultures.
“The documentation of 1600 Mustatil is quite extraordinary,” says Kennedy.
“It suggests that northern Arabia was characterised by a similar religious belief or that the people who had this belief roamed over a vast area.
“This is pretty much unparalleled in the Neolithic anywhere in the world. Also, the identification of betyls suggests that this tradition was present in Arabia much earlier than we initially thought.”
The study site contained, predominantly, cattle remains – around a third of which were identified as domestic animals. Other remnants included those of domestic goats and sheep, gazelles, and coprolites – fossilised faecal matter – attributed to hyenas.
The site suggests herding practices by the region’s inhabitants, and the use of sacred spaces as a place of pilgrimage for religious practice.
“Collectively, what we’ve seen across all these monuments is the suggestion that a large part of northern Arabia was marked by a similar cultic belief and ritual construction, as well as pilgrimage activity – a more connected landscape than was usual for this period,” Kennedy says.
“The predominance of cattle suggests that the region had enough vegetation and water to sustain herding, which could indicate the continuation of the Holocene Humid Period in this region.”
The researchers will continue excavating in the region to determine the spread of these cultural traditions.