Archaeologists have unearthed a 5,000-year-old leopard trap in the Negev Desert in Israel.
The trap, which was found along with a 1,600-year-old trap, was originally thought to be just a few hundred years old, and is nearly identical to traps that have been used by desert-dwelling Bedouins in the area in the last century.
"The most exciting thing is the antiquity of these carnivore traps, which is totally unexpected," said study co-author Naomi Porat, a geochronologist with the Geological Survey of Israel.
At least 50 of the simple traps are scattered throughout the Negev Desert in the southern part of Israel. But they don't stand out in the landscape. [Stark Beauty: Images of Israel's Negev Desert]
"They look like a pile of stones, like a cairn, and you need a good eye and also some digging around to realize what it is," Porat told LiveScience.
To set the traps, people would have attached a tasty piece of meat at the end of a rope to lure the leopards or other carnivores.
"When the carnivore pulls at the bait the rope is attached to a slab door and it just closes, so the animal is trapped inside this carnivore box trap," Porat said, referring to a door made from a slab-shaped rock.
Many researchers had assumed the traps were fairly modern, but Porat's colleagues were curious about their provenance and asked her to analyze the traps.
Porat used a technique called optical dating to measure the amount of radiation that had been absorbed from the environment in two of the leopard traps. By comparing that with background levels of radiation in the area, which have changed very little over the millennia, the team could determine when the traps were created.
One of the traps was about 5,000 years old, while the other was 1,600 years old. That suggests this same technology was used for thousands of years. The traps were likely used to lure leopards, but also other predators, such as foxes, wolves, hyenas and caracals, long-eared cats that are common throughout the Middle East.
The traps are near ancient enclosures used by the first sheep and goat herders around 6,000 years ago, Porat said. The herders probably used them to keep their flocks safe from hungry competitors.
From the earliest times, "this is part of their defense system against the elements, which in this case is leopards and other carnivores."
Nowadays, leopards are no longer a menace: Hunting and habitat loss destroyed their populations and the last one was spotted in the region about 10 years ago, making the wild cats extinct in Negev and virtually extinct in Jordan, Porat said.
Live Science newsletter
Stay up to date on the latest science news by signing up for our Essentials newsletter.
Tia is the managing editor and was previously a senior writer for Live Science. Her work has appeared in Scientific American, Wired.com and other outlets. She holds a master's degree in bioengineering from the University of Washington, a graduate certificate in science writing from UC Santa Cruz and a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Texas at Austin. Tia was part of a team at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that published the Empty Cradles series on preterm births, which won multiple awards, including the 2012 Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism.