Study identifies oldest known scaled building plans in human history

Oldest architectural plans detail mysterious desert mega structures.

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For at least 40,000 years, humans have reproduced mental images of their natural surroundings by sculpting objects, painting, and engraving long-lasting physical surfaces. However, while human constructions have modified natural spaces and their surroundings for many millennia, few plans or maps of such humanmade structures predate the protohistoric period of the literate civilizations of Mesopotamia and Ancient Egypt. 

Indeed, archaeological and historical research have only documented a few architectural plans and miniature models of buildings and large-sized objects from that time period. Before that, it was unknown how Stone Age communities conceived their buildings and the use of their domestic or utilitarian structures.

The oldest known scaled building designs in human history are identified by an international team of academics, including those from the University of Freiburg, in engravings found in Jordan and Saudi Arabia. The 8,000 to 9,000-year-old engravings depict desert dragons – kilometer-long prehistoric megastructures used to trap animals.

dimensions of desert dragons
The dimensions of desert dragons only become apparent from the air: at Jebel az-Zilliyat in Saudi Arabia, the true-to-scale engraving depicts nearby desert dragons. Source: Oliver Barge, CNRS

Prof. Dr. Frank Preusser from the University of Freiburg said, “Conclusions can be drawn from the findings about the people of the time. Transferring a large space to a small, two-dimensional plan represents a milestone in intelligent behavior.”

Both discoveries feature stone tool engravings of local desert dragons. Desert dragons, which may be up to five km long and were first observed from aircraft in the 1920s, are made out of stone walls that converge into a complex surrounded by pits. In recent years, archaeologists have ascertained that they were employed for extensive wild animal capturing. There are eight desert dragons in Jordan’s Jibal al-Khasabiyeh region.

The researchers discovered a stone carving that is roughly 9,000 years old and measures 80 by 32 cm. Three and a half km separate two visible pairs of dragons at Jebel az-Zilliyat in Saudi Arabia. Here, too, a scaled engraving with a total age of roughly 8,000 years was found. The engraving has a total length of 382 cm and a width of 235 cm.

The oldest known scale building plan in human history
The oldest known scale building plan in human history: the depiction of a nearby desert dragon in Jordan is dated to around 9,000 years ago. Source: Oliver Barge, CNRS

Plans for big structures have so far only been represented in crude detail, in stark contrast to the engravings of al-Khashabiyeh and az-Zilliyat, which are quite precise. The precise purpose for which they were used and how they were put into action is still a mystery to those who designed them, in part because it is challenging to fathom the entire complex from the ground.

Journal Reference:

  1. Crassard R., Abu-Azizeh W., Barge O., Brochier J.É., Preusser F., Seba H., Kiouche A.E., Régagnon E., Sánchez Priego J.A., Almalki T., Tarawneh M., 2023. The oldest plans to scale humanmade megastructures. PLOS ONE 18(5): e0277927. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0277927