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A team of international archaeologists discovered life-sized wild camel carvings on a rock outcrop near the southern Nafud desert border in Saudi Arabia. Carvings are outlined in white to enhance visibility.         Source: Maria Guagnin, et al/Science

Carved Camels Ready for Copulation in Saudi Arabian Desert: Unknown Origin

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An international team of archaeologists studying ancient rock art in Saudi Arabia is celebrating a new and surprising discovery. On a rock outcropping near the southern border of the Nafud desert, the German, Australian and Saudi archaeologists found the carved figures of a dozen wild camels. All of the animal carvings were quite large, but despite their size and the existence of other rock art in the area, somehow these images were overlooked by previous explorers.

At the site called Sahout, the rock art display “is dominated by life-sized, naturalistic, engravings of camels, which are in some cases superimposed with Neolithic imagery of domesticated sheep,” the archaeologists wrote in an article about their discovery published in the journal Archaeological Research in Asia

These wild camels belong to a long-extinct species that roamed far and wide across the Arabian Peninsula thousands of years ago and was never given a scientific name.

In 2018, archaeologists exploring in the province of Al-Jouf in the northwestern Arabian Desert discovered 21 life-sized carvings of wild camels and wild horses, in a rock art collection that was estimated to have been produced sometime between 6,000 and 5,000 BC.

Other investigations have located drawings or carvings of camels at sites to the north, south and west of the Nefud desert, which means these animals were portrayed by rock artists working in an area covering hundreds of square miles or kilometers. If the rock carvers belonged to an ancient hunter-gather culture that wandered widely in search of food, water and other resources, it’s possible that one artists’ collective may have been responsible for all of these images.

However, as of now the newly discovered camel carvings at Sahout have not been dated, so there is no way to know for sure if the artists who made them lived at the same time as the artists who created the camel images elsewhere in Arabia.

Tracking the Mysterious Rock Artists of Sahout

The rich collection of rock art at Sahout had been seen before and reported on by archaeologists. But newer carvings overlap with the images of the camels, which made it harder for them to be detected.

“The outcroppings contain a dense cluster of rock art from many different periods," study lead author Maria Guagnin, a researcher at the Max Planck Institute of Geoanthropology in Jena, Germany, told Live Science. "You can see that the carvings were done in various phases and are stylistically different."

Radiocarbon dating of two trenches and two hearths found near the Sahout images show that humans and/or their ancient ancestors occupied the site continuously from the Late Pleistocene (129,000 years ago to 11,700 years ago) until the Middle Holocene (7,000 to 5,000 years ago). But as of now there have been no archaeological finds in the area that would more definitively link the rock art to any particular culture or time period.

Experts will continue to unravel the true significance and intent behind the camel carvings that adorn the Arabian Peninsula. It is currently challenging to link the rock art to a particular culture or time period. (Maria Guagnin, et al/Science)

Experts will continue to unravel the true significance and intent behind the camel carvings that adorn the Arabian Peninsula. It is currently challenging to link the rock art to a particular culture or time period. (Maria Guagnin, et al/Science)

Looking closely at the images of the camels, the researchers who discovered them have an idea of what time of year they were likely created.

"What's most striking about the beautifully carved camels is that most of them are male," Guagnin said. "Some of the carvings contain camels showing their dulla, an organ that hangs out of a male camel's mouth [that is used to attract females]."

Given the nature of this symbolism, the archaeologists believe the carvings were made during mating season. This would have occurred between November and March, when the male camels would have presumably been more visible and out in the open when they were searching for a female partner.

"The feral camels also hadn't [molted their fur] yet and still had their winter hair," Guagnin noted, indicating that the carvings may have been made in the early part of that March-November period.

When Saudi Arabia Was Lush and Green, Camels and Humans Roamed Free

Between 8,000 and 4,000 BC, the climate in the lands of modern-day Saudi Arabia was significantly wetter and more moderate in temperature than it is today. This 4,000-year era is known as the Holocene Humid Period, and conditions would have been much friendlier for human and animal life at this time, since northern Arabia was covered by forests, grasslands, lakes and rivers.

Evidence indicates that human population in northern Arabia peaked between 5,300 and 4,800 BC, declining later as the climate became much more arid and foreboding. Curiously, the site at Sahout doesn’t seem like it would have been especially hospitable to human life even during the Holocene Humid Period. Yet people apparently lived there at that time, and for tens of thousands of years before that.

"There's no known water source, so there might have been something else that brought people here," Guagnin speculated. "Perhaps it was a good stopping point on their way to another location. It must've been an important location, but right now, we're not sure why."

Without supporting archaeological evidence (like stone carving tools, for example), it is virtually impossible to connect the rock art at Sahout, or anywhere else in Saudi Arabia, with a specific culture or exact time period. But if this type of evidence is eventually discovered—and archaeologists are looking for it—this may allow the experts to finally decode the true meaning and purpose of the ancient rock art that decorates so much of the Arabian Peninsula.

Top image: A team of international archaeologists discovered life-sized wild camel carvings on a rock outcrop near the southern Nafud desert border in Saudi Arabia. Carvings are outlined in white to enhance visibility.         Source: Maria Guagnin, et al/Science

By Nathan Falde

 
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Nathan

Nathan Falde graduated from American Public University in 2010 with a Bachelors Degree in History, and has a long-standing fascination with ancient history, historical mysteries, mythology, astronomy and esoteric topics of all types. He is a full-time freelance writer from... Read More

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