Mustatil: the oldest ritual monuments in the world

Scientists have found the oldest ritual monuments, named Mustatils, in northwestern Arabia and are looking for answers: “why has it been built?”

The picture shows a group of three mustatils. AAKSA and Royal Commission for AlUla/Antiquity

A recent study by Hugh Thomas published in the Journal of Antiquity highlighted the oldest monument in the world. Because of their rectangular structure, these old features have recently been renamed by the Royal Commission for AlUla (RCU) as Mustatil. This study has suggested that the thousands of rectangular monuments found in northwestern Saudi Arabia are ~7000 years old. This means they are considerably older than the Egyptian pyramids (oldest ~4700 years old) and Stonehenge (~5000 years old) the ancient stone circles of Britain.

These monuments consist of two platforms linked with two longer walls with a chamber in the centre. An open area surrounds the chamber with a standing stone in the centre. Because of additional features like chambers and entranceways, these mustatils are archaeologically more complex than previously supposed.

“More than 1000 mustatil were found in 200,000 square kilometers of area”

In 2019, the excavation of one mustatil revealed the remnants of horns and bones of wild and domestic animals, with cattle signatures being dominant. This offers the first evidence for possible existence of Neolithic cattle in the northwestern Arabia and the Cattle remnants found near central chambers might indicate the use of mustatils for ritualistic animal sacrifice.

Features of mustatil:
A. Internal niche located in the head of a mustatil;
B. A blocked entranceway in the base of a mustatil
C–D. Associated features of a mustatil: cells and orthostats
E. Stone pillar identified on the Harrat Khaybar lava field
(photographs © AAKSAU and Royal Commission for AlUla) . AAKSA and Royal Commission for AlUla/Antiquity

Researchers said that a large structure like mustatils, would take months to make by one family. The largest built from basalt boulders (525 m in length) weighs ~12,000 tonnes. They may have been built by multiple families working together and therefore, “mustatils might have been symbol of connection between groups during Neolithic/Chalcolithic. In this time, the ritual structures functioned as symbolic demonstrations of collective power and legitimacy.” The authors suggested that visibility of the monuments was likely a prominent factor for mustatil placement, again demonstrating their significance to these people. The large number of mustatils is intriguing with authors speculating that they were each been used only once or that different groups made and used their own mustatils.

“The fluctuation in climate, during late Pleistocene to early Holocene, played a major role in the dispersal of people and technologies in the region” the study suggested. The available paleoclimate data during the late Holocene showed the climate was humid. However, the relation between the mustatils and the Holocene Humid Phase (c. 8000–4000 BC) remains unknown. The presence of mustatils has suggested the dense population of human in the northwestern Arabia during middle Holocene (~7000 years ago). However, the authors suggest that detailed study is required to understand the settlement and human-animal interaction in northwestern Arabia during middle Holocene. There is so much still to learn about humanity during the prehistory era. These new findings shed light on a potential hub of human activity during this time in northwestern Arabia.

Reference

Thomas, H., Kennedy, M.A., Dalton, M., McMahon, J., Boyer, D. and Repper, R., 2021. The mustatils: cult and monumentality in Neolithic north-western Arabia. Antiquity, pp.1-22.

Author

  • Abdur Rahman has a Master's degree in Applied Geology from Aligarh Muslim University and presently pursuing PhD in Paleoclimate reconstruction from Geosciences Division, Physical Research Laboratory, Ahmedabad, India.

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