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Agriculture and pastoralism changed the lives of ancient Yemeni communities. In the fifth millennium BC, many Yemeni people moved to live in fertile areas, which sustained an unprecedented population density during that period. Across the valleys, Yemenis began building villages, reclaiming agricultural land, and establishing animal pens near rivers and green pastures.1 During that time, they also began to calculate rainfall seasons and regulate floodwaters,2 and construct stone huts with large oval stones.3 These changes led them to abandon manufacturing stone tools that were less useful in their new lives involving grazing and agriculture. In this article we present an overview of the complex stone industries and constructions that emerged with the end of the Stone Age in Yemen, and how these astonishing spheres paved the way for the explosion of civilization.
This period marks the emergence of religion and the beginning of the decline of superstition. It also marks the beginning of civilization in Yemen, which first emerged in Wadi Hadramout, the site of the oldest stone megalithic monument, possibly the oldest in the Arabian Peninsula. Megaliths are monuments constructed from large stones that stand vertically together. They were built by pastoral and agricultural societies at the end of the Neolithic period, and indicate the beginning of the era of temples.
Many scholars believe that the word Hadramout means ‘urban’, due to its similarity to the word Hadar, which carries the same meaning. According to Saba al-Sulayhi, an engineer who researches stone structures, what supports this hypothesis is the presence of many words in Arabic that are structurally similar to the name Hadramout. These words are based on the same root, which appears to be derived from Semitic languages such as Aramaic, Syriac, Amharic, or Hebrew, or share their origins.The additional letter ‘m’ in the word Hadramout is a suffix denoting the feminine gender in Yemen’s ancient languages.
Megalithic monuments are the oldest structures built by humans. Towards the end of the Stone Age, many monuments had been built in the Levant, Yemen, Africa, and Aruba, with the most famous being Stonehenge in Britain. Megalithic monuments remain the greatest mystery, puzzling archaeologists to this today. How did Stone Age pastoralists and farmers lift stone slabs that weigh up to 300 tons? In Yemen, archaeological missions were able to find various forms of megalithic monuments scattered in different areas, such as Harib al-Qaramesh in Sana’a, Masnaa Maria Mountain in Dhamar, Wadi Harib in Shabwa, and Jadran and Ruwaik mountains isolated in Ramlat al-sab atayn desert.4
Stone monuments in Yemen have many mythical and ritualistic symbols. In March 1997, a Canadian expedition discovered a massive monument in the center of the Tihama desert – standing at about 12 feet high and weighing 20 tons – near the village of the Mudmen on the Red Sea coast.5 This discovery revealed an undiscovered Yemeni megalithic culture (researchers refer to this culture as the Mudmen culture). In Hadramout a stone monument dating back to 5000 BC was discovered in Wadi Sana. It is a structure of large rock slabs that stand vertically (originally built as a semicircle).6 These ancient stone monuments were used as platforms for sacrificial offerings and as primitive temples where ceremonies were performed.
Around 3000 BC saw the spread of cremation culture and other burial rituals, alongside a shift in the use of stone monuments. Later, the monument in Wadi Sana in Hadramout was transformed into a tomb. Under the Mudmen monument in Tihama, three skeletons of children were found, buried thousands of years after the stones were erected.7 This confirms a cultural transformation in which ancient stone monuments were used as sacred tombs. This hypothesis is supported by another discovery under the same stone monument in Mudmen. Brass tools (spoons, daggers, planers, and alloys) were found and dated to a later burial date. Studies indicate that these tools were offered to the stone monument amid festive ceremonies, and that brass tools presented as offerings did not have a functional use but rather were buried as offerings for their symbolic value.8 Were the brass offerings presented to appease the dead?
During that period, the ancient Yemeni people stopped building megalithic monuments and began to build burial monuments in the form of upright tombs containing rooms. In Wadi al-Jul in Hadramout, many of these tombs are scattered over limestone plateaus. In the Jadran and Ruwaik mountains, in Ramlat al-sab atayn desert, there are large tombs containing approximately 3,000 upright graves. Some of the tombs contain the remains of sheep and goats, which indicates that the inhabitants of these tombs were leading a pastoral life.9 The structures of stone construction in this period changed and became hollow and cobbled circular structures, covered by vaulted ceilings of flat stone slabs. The tombs have upper entrances that are sealed. The function of these cemeteries seems to have been the burial of bodies alongside valuable items, which were later looted and reused in other tombs in the Bronze Age.10 By around 2000 BC, and the beginning of the end of the Stone Age, burial mounds supported by stone columns appeared in Yemen. These took the form of a mound of soil that had a diameter of around 30 meters, covering mass graves or covering one prominent burial ground. At the top of the mound there is a stone monument that can be seen from afar. Burial and burning rituals were performed at the lower part of the monument,11 and sacrifices were offered to the dead.
Desert kites are odd constructions scattered across deserts. In the Near East and the Middle East, there are at least 700 – 800 of these monuments, with the real number undoubtedly much larger.12 They were given their name by French and British pilots who observed them as they flew above the south of the Levant.13 When scientists discovered these strange forms in the Arabian deserts, they believed that they were the remains of Roman fortifications, or perhaps limits set by the shepherds to protect their cattle. During the 19th century, the Austrian historian Jakob Burckhardt (1818 – 1897) found evidence that these constructions were in fact deer hunting traps that were used in ancient Syria.14 The hypothesis was that the rooms dug in the ground under the kites are trenches where hunters could shoot their prey, or they may be traps where animals could be caught.
In Yemen, the kites found on the border between Sana’a and Marib are different from those found in other regions. The upper part of the structures show a different form to those found in the Levant.15 In the lower parts, there are long passageways that widen and join to form a large square and the structure is fortified with two walls built from a layer of small stones.16 The length of the walls ranges from 50m to 1.5km and the height from 60cm to 1m. Together they form the upper part of the construction, which is an enclosed space that houses between three to twelve lower rooms.
Some researchers believe that these lower rooms are ancient hunting traps. However, a team of scientists argues that comparing hunting structures in ancient Yemen with their counterparts in Syria reveals significant structural differences, indicating a possible inadequacy in Burckhardt’s theory. The differences identified appear to be vast enough to challenge the understanding of the constructions found in Yemen as hunting traps.17
Ancient Yemenis were passionate hunters and considered the practice of hunting a sacred ritual.18 We can imagine a scene from the Bronze Age where a herd of ibexes is grazing in the meadows that descend from Wadi Yala between the regions of Saraweh and Sana’a. In this region, an Italian expedition discovered a single house dating back to between 1500 and 900 BC, where the remains of an ibex that shows signs of ritual hunting were found.19 Let us imagine a herd of ibexes nearby, as hunters emerge from inside the discovered house: one of them goes to hide in the trenches, and the others rush to frighten the herd by shouting and moving their arms. Let us also imagine herding dogs, as the mission found the remains of dogs in the same area, from the same period. The herd runs in fear and falls into the trap. Following the passageways until they reach the upper part of the structure, the animals finally find themselves trapped in the square. In this moment, a man who had been hiding from the beginning in a room at the top of the kite approaches the ibex and kills it from behind. The hunter immediately takes the ibex out of the kite and then waits for the next prey.20
With the discovery of bronze, the Stone Age in Yemen ended. The advent of the Bronze Age marked the rise of ancient kingdoms. This is the era when Yemenis were able to extract minerals from stones, while bronze was used in the manufacturing of tools, antiques, and knives.
There are many remains left by our ancestors in the Stone Age. The use of stone monuments and desert kites continued in Yemen until the Middle Ages[D1] . This is one of the reasons why they were easier to discover; however, what about the monuments that have vanished and been eroded before we were able to discover them? In other words, was the Stone Age a period richer than that we are able to decipher from what is left behind?
- Shihab Jamal al–Ahdal is a researcher in cultural anthropology, and holds a Bachelor’s degree in media (University of the Future, Sana’a). Currently, he works as a public relations officer at Basement Cultural Foundation.
1. McCorriston J, Steimer-Herbet T, Harrower M, Williams K, Saliège J-F, `Aqil `Abdalaziz Bin. (2011). Gazetteer of small-scale monuments in prehistoric Hadramawt, Yemen: a radiocarbon chronology from the RASA-AHSD Project research 1996±2008. P 2.
2. McCorriston J, Steimer-Herbet T, Harrower M, Williams K, Saliège J-F, `Aqil `Abdalaziz Bin. (2011). Gazetteer of small-scale monuments in prehistoric Hadramawt, Yemen: a radiocarbon chronology from the RASA-AHSD Project research 1996±2008. P 1.
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20. Barca, D, Lucarini, G, & Fedele, FG. (2012). The Provenance of Obsidian Artefacts from the Wadi Ath-Thayyilah 3 Neolithic Site (Eastern Yemen Plateau). Archaeometry, 54(4), (PP. 603–622).