Imagine travelling through the Saudi Arabian desert and coming across a tall reddish rock. In one niche are life-sized sculptures of nearly a dozen camels. This stunning art exhibit is a mysterious and ancient tribute to the wild camels that once roamed the deserts of present-day Saudi Arabia. These etchings may raise more questions than answers, but a recent article in Asian Archaeological Research suggests that this artwork may have been important to the early inhabitants of the southern tip of the Nefud Desert.
These reliefs have long been considered archaeological gems. The site, known as Sahout, lies on the southern edge of the Nefud Desert, a vast dune desert with evidence of human habitation dating back at least 85,000 years. In ancient times, wild camels with shaggy fur and prominent humps roamed the dunes (including in America, but that's another story). Wild camels are almost a lost legend, with only the critically endangered Bactrian camel remaining. These magnificent animals were so present in daily life on the Arabian Peninsula that giant sculptures were created long before Stonehenge was built.
These revalued reliefs are another homage to the camel. Approximately 12 reliefs are life-sized. The camel depicted is likely painted in heat, as it is depicted with thick fur that later falls off. "The most impressive thing about these beautifully carved camels is that most of them are male," says lead author Maria Guanin. "Some of the carvings depict camels displaying the dura, an organ [used to attract females] that hangs from the male camel's mouth."
But why carve herds of wild camels into elusive crevices in the desert? The answer remains unclear. However, experiments have shown that Sahout was frequently populated by humans throughout ancient history, from times as distant as the Pleistocene (2.6 million to 11,700 years ago) to the mid-Holocene (7,000 to 5,000 years ago). It is shown that he lived there. Exactly who created this sculpture is a mystery, especially since it overlaps with other paintings from different eras. Nevertheless, the reliefs demonstrate the importance of both these animals and rock art to the early cultures of the region through their similarities with other depictions of camels.