A cult monument in the desert hid hundreds of animal and human bones inside

Archaeologists in Saudi Arabia discover ancient human remains buried alongside hundreds

scattered animal bones inside a 7,000-year-old desert monument, a ritual site used by a prehistoric cult.

Remains of an adult male in his 30sfound inside mustatil (the name comes from the Arabic word meaning rectangle). Mustatils are prehistoric sandstone walled monuments found in northwestern Saudi Arabia. The ruins where the bones were found is one of more than 1,600 mustatils discovered in the country since the 1970s. Now they are mostly buried in the sand. However, these structures were built when the Arabian Desert was a lush grassland where elephants roamed and hippos bathed in lakes.

Mustatils builders were members of an unknowncult. Researchers say that as climate change slowly turned the land into a desert, cult members gathered to protect it by sacrificing cattle to unknown gods. The new mustatil excavations, detailed in a PLOS One magazine article, have revealed more details about the mysterious structures and their visitors.

According to scientists, during the excavations, scientists foundcomplex structures within the ruins, including interior walls and columns that give way to central chambers. They may have been intended for feasts and ritual sacrifices.

Annotated image of mustatil excavated by researchers. Image courtesy of Kennedy et al., 2023, PLOS ONE

Believers entered mustatil from one end andwalked from 20 to 600 m or more to another until they reached a platform of rubble, which was called the "head". The inner chamber contained a baitl, a sacred stone that cult members used to communicate with their gods.

Mustatil, excavated by researchers, is located55 km east of the ancient city of Al-Ula. The length of the cult monument is 140 m and it was built from local sandstone. Beitle is a large upright stone, around which the researchers found 260 fragments of animal skulls and horns. They mostly belong to livestock, although scientists have found that some fragments belonged to domestic goats, gazelles and small ruminants.

Directly north of mustatil's headresearchers discovered a chest, a type of burial chamber built during the Neolithic and Bronze Ages in Europe and the Middle East. Analysis of the buried bones showed that he was between 30 and 40 years old when he died. He had osteoarthritis, a degenerative joint disease that is the most common form of arthritis. Radiocarbon dating of the bones showed that the man was buried 400 years after the animals were slaughtered.

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