7,000-year-old Evidence of ‘World’s Earliest Pilgrimage’ Unearthed in Arabia
Recent excavations and ensuing studies conducted at the ancient stone monuments ‘mustatil’ (literally meaning rectangle) in northwest Arabia have revealed the presence of a cultic ritual that was held way back in prehistory. Neolithic people from the late 6th millennium BC conducted a complex set of social, political, and religious rituals, as evidenced from the numerous animal bones and human remains of at least 9 individuals. The cultic aspect was gleaned from the conspicuous arrangement and placement of animal horns and skulls at the ritual site.
A Communal Gathering: First Religious Pilgrimage in History?
Located in Saudi Arabia , compelling evidence of this gathering of ancient humans from 7,000 years ago has been gathered at over 1,000 prehistoric rectangular stone structures or mustatils – “large-scale, open-air rectangular structures with low stone walls”.
The precise reasons for their construction and their timing remain a puzzle for now, but the process of understanding, documenting, and studying them and other archaeological remains from the area, was initiated in 2018 by the Royal Commission for AlUla.
Close-up views of the horn chamber. (Wael Abu-Azizeh et al 2022 / RCU )
The recently excavated mustatil boasts dimensions of 131x39 feet (40x12 m), featuring stone walls that reach up to 6.6 feet (2 m) in thickness, reports a new study published in Proceedings of the Seminar for Arabian Studies . Unfortunately, erosion has acted, significantly affecting the original height of these walls.
The researchers emphasize the likely communal nature of these rituals and suggest that people may have embarked on specific journeys to these prehistoric stone structures – perhaps, one of the earliest documented pilgrimage traditions.
The prevalence of domesticated species among the animal offerings provides additional evidence supporting the pastoral nomadic lifestyle of the community (especially considering that a whopping 95% of these were local animals). It is plausible that the community members constructed the mustatils as a means of fostering social cohesion and a marker of territory, according to a press release .
“The data of the horn chamber mustatil sheds an entirely new light on the complexity of the ritual practices performed by these early pastoralists. The reconstruction of these ritual practices highlights, the process through which the individual or smaller scale social component interacts with the wider pastoral, tribal group," lead author of the current study Wael Abu-Azizeh, a junior professor of archaeology at Lumière University Lyon 2, tells The National .
The horns and skull fragments appear to have been deposited during a singular ceremony. In a preliminary reenactment of this ritual, it is hypothesized that pastoral nomads congregated and carried these offerings as integral components of the ceremonial proceedings.
To access the sacred area within the compact Horn Chamber (a smaller mustatil uncovered in 2018), participants entered one by one through a narrow doorway, traversing a small antechamber furnished with hearths. Here, they presented this symbolic trophy on behalf of their respective social groups. The assemblage of these enshrined offerings collectively conveyed a sense of unity and shared identity for the larger social community.
An overall perspective of the SU100 platform, while the bottom images offer close-up views of the horn chamber. ( Wael Abu-Azizeh et al 2022 / RCU )
The Hearth of the Matter: Cattle Cults and Human Remains
At the heart of the courtyard within this mustatil structure, researchers have identified a potential shrine-like construct. It contains two hearths, which suggest that ceremonies and rituals may have taken place within it. A cache of over 3,000 animal remains fragments, collectively weighing approximately 55 pounds (25 kg), were also found within the structure. The animal bones were deposited between 5300 and 5000 BC.
The Kennedy team discovered the majority of skull components and horns at this ancient ritual site (left) carefully placed in proximity to a central standing stone. ( Royal Commission for AlUla ) Right: North-east of AlUla, researchers came across horns from a variety of domestic and wild species, including goats and aurochs. Most of these horns belonged to male animals. ( Royal Commission for AlUla )
Among these remnants are hundreds of animal horns and skulls, primarily from species like cattle and caprines, which encompass goats and related animals. Interestingly, similar collections of cattle heads and horns have been observed at various prehistoric sites in the Middle East, including one site in Yemen where a circle of cattle skulls was prominently exhibited!
The nine humans are a summation of two infants, five adults, an adolescent or young adult, and a child, and are dated to a few centuries after the animal bones. The humans were likely part of a collective burial , the researchers write in the paper. Were they related to the builders of the mustatil? It remains unclear at the moment, along with the purpose of the mustatil itself, reports Live Science .
"By the quantity of remains, the diversity of species represented, and the unusual state of preservation, this assemblage constitutes a unique and unprecedented discovery in the archaeological record of the region. This deposit is interpreted as a testimony of complex and sophisticated ritual practices…" wrote Abu-Aziz and others in a 2018 study that unearthed ‘the Horn Chamber’.
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In a 2021 paper published in Antiquity, it was postulated that the mustatils were potentially part of a ‘cattle cult’ in the region, though Abu-Aziz disagrees with this hypothesis. This is mainly because the cattle bones accounted for a very small percentage of the total animal remains at the site.
A second study published earlier this year revealed that the mustatils were conducted during the Holocene Humid Period (7000-6000 BC) in the Arabian region. At this time in history, the area experienced increased moisture, faced periodic droughts and gradual desertification. Perhaps these structures offered a sanctuary to conduct rituals to invoke the grace of the rain gods and bless the parched land?
Top image: The natural cliff overhang provided protection from the elements, contributing to the remarkable preservation of the horn chamber. Source: Royal Commission for AlUla
By Sahir Pandey
Abu-Azizeh, W., et al . 2023. The Horn Chamber Mustatil: a Neolithic open-air sanctuary evidencing pastoral nomadic ritual activity in the north-western Arabian Desert . Proceedings of the Seminar for Arabian Studies. Available at: https://www.archaeopress.com/Archaeopress/Products/9781803273945.
Al-Bustani, H. 2023. 'Exceptional' Neolithic discoveries in AlUla are among region's oldest pilgrimage sites . Available at: https://www.thenationalnews.com/arts-culture/2023/09/11/neolithic-discovery-alula-pilgrimage/.
Jarus, O. 2023. 7,000-year-old animal bones, human remains found in enigmatic stone structure in Arabia . Available at: https://www.livescience.com/archaeology/7000-year-old-animal-bones-human-remains-found-in-enigmatic-stone-structure-in-arabia.