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The Arabian Peninsula is dotted with hundreds of mysterious structures dating to the sixth millennium BC.

Cattle herders on the Arabian Peninsula built the world’s first large-scale monuments some 7,000 years ago, more than 4 millennia before the ancient Egyptians built the pyramids or Stonehenge rose on Britain’s plains.

The structures are called mustatils, the Arabic word for rectangle, in reference to the characteristic shape of the open courtyard at their centre. Melissa Kennedy and her colleagues at the University of Western Australia in Perth documented more than 1,000 mustatils that are scattered over a 200,000-square-kilometre area of the desert in modern-day Saudi Arabia. Built with local stone and often hundreds of metres long, they appear singly at some sites and in groups at others. Most have a narrow entrance way at one end.

The team excavated one site and found horns and bone fragments from cattle, gazelle and sheep. An analysis of the remains, which seem to be ritual offerings, dates the site to the sixth millennium BC.

The bigger mustatils would have taken thousands of hours to construct, suggesting that people of the day were organizing and building collectively.

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