Rock Art is a precious source of information regarding the animal species that populated the nowadays desert areas. The petroglyphs reveal a large variety of animals that have now disappeared from the Middle East. The depicted species indicate that the climate of prehistorical periods and Antiquity was much more humid than today, what is confirmed by other archaeological, geological and botanical records. Rainfalls were abundant and many local lakes retained plus or less permanently in the "qa'in" that form today flat mud plans. Vegetation was rich and diversified. The meadows could host herds of gazelles, ibexes, onyxes and several kinds of predators.
Species are not equally represented on the graffiti: some animals are constantly present, others less common or rare, while the rest never appear. This disparity can be explained by different factors: some particularly harmful species, as snakes or scorpions, are probably taboo in order to avoid attracting them. In contrast, impressive animals are over represented as the big caprins (ibex, onyx, kudu), ostriches, felines (especially lions) and, starting from the Iron Age, camels and horses... those species were probably perceived as beneficial and had a positive connotation. The preference for certain species at the expense of others may also be explained by a ritual and religious motivation. Other smaller or more familiar animals did not benefit of exposure, as small birds, rabbits, cats, sheep... and strangely the gazelles, which are almost absent in areas where they represented a major resource. But dogs, domesticated since the early Neolithic, commonly appear, most of time in relation with hunting scenes. However, those observations may be qualified depending on the region: it seems that, while certain species are never depicted in the Eastern desert, we may find some examples in the Hisma area. Moreover, we may face some challenges in the interpretation of the designs, especially for the caprins because their identification relies mainly on the length of the horns.
Hunting was the main resource of food for the nomadic and semi-nomadic people, and this even if they also raised cattle. It was a social activity that strengthened the community bounds and had also a religious and ritual connotation, as underlined by pre-Islamic inscriptions associated to pictures. In the Eastern desert, Safaitic inscriptions (around 1st century BC to the 4th century AD) often accompany to hunting scenes. They invoke deities for helping in the hunting as well as dedicate to a god an animal slaughter or the firstling of the hunt.
The hunting techniques included the use of kites, pit traps sometimes covered by a net and ropes to catch animals. Hunting is a group activity which includes dogs.
Eastern Desert: a kite, with many cache enclosures
Eastern Desert: oryx attacked by two hunters shooting with bows
Eastern Desert: a dog attacking a herd of caprines ( ibexes and maybe gazelles due to small horns) and ostriches (?)
The subject of the animal representation is very wide and not yet systematically documented and surveyed. It raises many questions about the dating of the designs as well as the presence, the introduction, the taming and the exploitation of certain species. We give here some general indications as a basis to further developments and an eventual reconsideration at the light of further surveys.
Several kinds of caprins are ubiquitous both in the Eastern Desert and in the Hisma Basin. A close survey would help to distinguish stylistic differences. It is not always easy to clearly identify the species.
The Nubian Ibex is recognizable to long curbing backwards horns, sometimes exaggeratedly impressive. The horns can be represented plus or less coiled. Ibex horns are indented and this detail is sometimes reproduced on the designs, as well as the beard. Ibex is extinct in Jordan, but herds live under protection in the Wadi Mujib, Dana and Wadi Rum Reserves.
Eastern Desert: two ibexes with indented horns
Eastern Desert, Wisad Pools: ibex with curved horns
Wadi Rum: a dog attacking two caprines, that can be ibexes or scimatar-horned oryx
The stylisation may lead to confusion and some images of caprins with long backwards horns could also eventually be interpreted as Scimitar-horned Oryx, kind of oryx that differs from the vertical horned Oryx through long backwards curved horns.
Eastern Desert: this group of caprines can include ibexes and oryxes, or only oryxes of two kinds: the Arabian (straight horns) and the Scimitar (curved horns)
The Arabian Oryx is recognizable to long straight horns, sometimes a hump on the neck or eventually strips on its body. This species is extinct in Jordan but some couples have been reintroduced in Wadi Rum.
Eastern Desert, Wisad Pools, oryxes recognizable thanks to their straight horns, with strips
Wadi Rum: oryx with exaggeratedly long horns
Twisted horns caprins that we eventually find on the representations may be kudus or addaxes. Those species are less represented than the previous ones, however they are present in the Eastern Desert as well as in the Hisma Basin.
Eastern Desert, Wisad Pools: probably a kudu
Eastern Desert, Wisad Pools: probably a kudu or eventually an addax
Eastern Desert, Jabal Qurma: Maybe an addax ?
The domestication of equines, comprising horses and donkeys, is commonly estimated around 3000 BC. However, it is likely that in the Middle East, horses are regularly used as a domesticated animal not before 2000 BC. The presence of ridden horses (or horses with bridles or ropes) is largely attested on the petroglyphs, especially in the Hisma Basin, and moderately in the Eastern Desert. Ridden horses are sometimes depicted with two little humps that indicate the saddle. They often appear in fights or hunting contexts. Other figures of free equines can be eventually interpreted as wild horses or onagers, a wild donkey that we know to have been present in the Middle East. Domesticated donkeys are apparently absent. Equine hunting is already attested in the Paleolithic in Jordan.
Eastern Desert, Jabal Qurma: in the center, a man rides a horse while holding a little equine (foal) on a leach
Wadi Rum: In the center, a dual fight between two riders holding spears
Eastern Desert: Two equines that could be horses or onagers
Eastern Desert, Jabal Qurma: a man hording a horse
Eastern Desert, Jabal Qurma: group of equines
The Arabian Camel or Dromedary is largely depicted on the petroglyphs and commonly used as beast of burden, fight mount or just an animal that seems to have a special relationship to humans. We find also free camels, without indication if they are wild camels or not. The camel has been tamed around 3000 BC in Iran, but started to be commonly used around 1000 BC or even later, which gives a terminus post quem for the dating of the camel designs.
Eastern Desert, Jabal Qurma: A camel retained by a man holding a stick
Eastern Desert: A camel in the context of wild life, maybe attacked by a predator
Among the felines, lions are easily identifiable thanks to a large neck representing the mane and exaggeratedly large paws. Lion figures have been largely represented on the mosaics, which testifies that this animal was still largely spread in the Middle East at the historical Antiquity. We find rarely other kind of felines, as leopards or cheetahs, despite of the fact that cheetahs in Jordan is attested till the end of the 19th century.
Eastern Desert, Jabal Qurma: two lions with large paws
Wadi Rum: A leopard or a cheetah
Wadi Rum: oryx attacked by two leopards or cheetahs
Cheetah: for the difference between cheetah and leopard, see this link:
It is worth to mention here the surprising discovery done in the Jafr Basin (South Eastern Desert) on the site of Awja 1, where scholars found unique felines representation, not engraved on stone but built with stones. The figures are positioned beside rectangular structures and stone circles that probably constituted an open-air sanctuary. They are identified by the archaeologist as cheetahs or panthers due to their rounded heads, the elongated bodies, large legs, curved tails and absence of horns. The felines constitute a group of four adults (2 or 3 m. length) and four juveniles (about 1.5 m. length). No dating material has been found on the site which was empty of artifacts. However, by comparison with other dated structures in the Negev and the Sinai, the site is estimated dating back to the Late Neolithic, around 5000 BC. In absence of material, the understanding of the site remains vague, nevertheless it let no doubt about a religious and ritual function. Feline iconography is found on petroglyphs in the Jafr Basin and those powerful animals probably had a magic and religious connotation.
Dogs generally accompany hunting scenes. They often have stretched body, small head with small pointed ears, an open jaw and sometimes a curly tail.
Eastern Desert: Hunting dog
Eastern Desert, Jabal Qurma : Hunting dog
Wadi Rum: a dog with a hunter holding a bow
Hyenas depicted in the Eastern Desert are stripped hyenas, the same species that still lives in the deserts of Jordan today. Such representations are quite rare. We find one example of a spotted hyena in Wadi Rum. Till now, any representation of fox has been identified.
Eastern Desert: In the middle of the stone, a hyena attacked by a rider
Eastern Desert: On the left corner of the stone, a hyena attacked by a rider
Few bovine designs are recorded till now and seem to be cows or bulls. The depiction of this animal is not common, both in the Eastern Desert and Wadi Rum. Bovines seem to be a hunted species, with an exception in Wadi Rum, where a large rock preserve the graffiti of a big cow or zebu.
Wadi Rum: a bovine
Eastern Desert: a rider attacks a bovine
Eastern Desert: group including two ibexes, one oryx and a bovine
Wadi Rum: cow or zebu
Birds represented on the petroglyphs are almost exclusively ostriches. We largely find them in the Eastern Desert, where they were hunted like the gazelles. It is exceptional to find other birds (one example below from Wadi Rum) and strangely, falcons and eagles are absent from the representations.
Eastern Desert: ostriches herd hunted by dogs
A bird, unidentified species (Wadi Rum)
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