For at least 40,000 years, humans have reproduced mental images of their natural environment by sculpting objects, painting them, and engraving long-lasting physical surfaces. While human constructions have altered natural spaces and their environments over many millennia, few plans or maps of such man-made structures predate the protohistoric period of the literate civilizations of Mesopotamia and ancient Egypt.

Indeed, archaeological and historical research has documented only a few architectural plans and miniature models of buildings and large objects of the 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 scale building designs in human history have been 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 carvings show desert dragons—miles of 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 full-size engraving shows desert dragons nearby. 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 that time. Transferring a large space to a small, two-dimensional floor plan is a milestone in intelligent behavior.”

Both discoveries include carvings of local desert dragons in stone tools. Desert dragons, which can be up to three miles long and were first sighted from airplanes in the 1920s, are made of stone walls that converge into a complex surrounded by pits. In recent years, archaeologists have determined that they were used for capturing wild animals on a large scale. There are eight desert dragons in Jordan’s Jibal al-Khasabiyeh region.

The researchers discovered a stone carving that is about 9,000 years old and measures 80 by 32 cm. Three and a half kilometers separate two visible pairs of dragons at Jebel az-Zilliyat in Saudi Arabia. A scale engraving has also been found here with a total age of about 8,000 years. 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 building plan in human history: The depiction of a nearby desert dragon in Jordan dates from about 9,000 years ago. Source: Oliver Barge, CNRS

Plans for major constructions have so far only been shown in rough detail, in stark contrast to the carvings of al-Khashabiyeh and az-Zilliyat, which are quite accurate. The exact purpose for which they were used and how they came to be used is still a mystery to those who designed them, in part because it is challenging to fathom the entire complex from the ground up.

Magazine reference:

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