Excavation of a remote stone monument in northern Arabia has revealed new insights into life in the late Neolithic era, including evidence of cult-like ritual activity and greater cultural cohesion than previously thought.

The five-year research project, led by The University of Western Australia and supported by the Royal Commission for AlUla, involved the excavation of a 140m-long ‘mustatil’ – a sandstone rectangular monument – located east of the ancient Arabian oasis city of AIUIa.

The monument is one of 1600 similar structures identified by the research team across a 300,000 sqkm area and estimated to date back as far as 7000 years.

Lead researcher and archaeologist Dr Melissa Kennedy, from UWA’s School of Humanities, said remains found within the monument suggested complex ritual activity in which the horns and crania of animals were presented as offerings to a large upright stone.

“It looks like cattle, goats and gazelles were brought to the site, potentially slaughtered there and then presented to what is probably a stone representation of an unknown deity,” Dr Kennedy said.

“We think there may be a link with water or rain and potentially ancient climate change.

“Collectively, what we’ve seen across all these monuments is the suggestion that a large part of northern Arabia was marked by a similar cultic belief and ritual construction, as well as pilgrimage activity – a more connected landscape than was usual for this period.

“The predominance of cattle suggests that the region had enough vegetation and water to sustain herding, which could indicate the continuation of the Holocene Humid Period in this region. It suggests that our understanding of the Neolithic period in the Arabian Peninsula needs further revision.”

Dr Kennedy said the research, which also involved the Museum of Natural History of Geneva, University of Ha’il and the Australian National University, was made challenging by the remoteness of the areas and by Covid-19.

The team is just one of many working in the regions of AlUla and Khaybar that are supported by the Royal Commission for AlUla, which was established as part of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 Programme.

The research was published today in PLOS One.