At the end of 1950 visited a Dutch archaeologist Stonehenge, the prehistoric monument in southern England. The massive stone circle would not be designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site another three decadesand there were no crowds of tourists or safety fencing.
The archaeologist was the only one around that day. He parked his car on the side of the road and walked over to the massive stone circle. The area seemed remote, almost deserted.
Scientists now know that when Stonehenge was first built thousands of years ago, it was not isolated. It was part of an area with other monuments, and scholars believe it was bustling with construction and other activity.
But what about the time before Stonehenge? Was the area wooded? Partly wooded? Or a vast space perfect for building a monument? And what did this mean for the hunter-gatherer societies that once called the area home?
Understanding an icon
Many historians and archaeologists examine Stonehenge an ‘icon’ of British history. Despite its legendary status, much about the memorial is misunderstood. Because it currently stands alone in open fields, many people have long assumed that it has always been separated from human activity.
Stonehenge was built on what is now Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire, England. Scientists have learned that Stonehenge was built in stages around 4,000-5,000 years ago and was one of several other monuments in the area.
The other monuments are made of less durable materials, such as wood, and decompose after a few centuries. Some, such as a structure built near the River Avon, were also made of stone, but were dismantled by prehistoric people within centuries of their construction.
Stonehenge has long been the last surviving monument and has captured the imagination for thousands of years. In the twelfth century, History of the Kings of Great Britain describes the origins of Stonehenge and claims that the stones came from Ireland and became part of a monument designed to honor Britons killed by the Saxons. Scholars now call this legend “fantasy,” in part because the Saxons didn’t make it this far millennia later.
Although scientists can now separate fact from fiction about Stonehenge, many questions remain unanswered. But there appears to be a promising answer to a question researchers have long considered pressing — what was the area like for ancient hunters and gatherers before the famous monument was erected?
Land before time
According to 2022 study in flat one researchers have been able to get a better idea of what the land around Stonehenge probably looked like while hunter-gatherer societies still lived in the area.
To learn more about life before Stonehenge, a group of researchers reconstructs environmental conditions. They examined animal remains, sedimentary DNA and other preserved ancient samples such as pollen and spores. They also use optically stimulated luminescence (OSL) and radiocarbon dating to determine what the earth looked like from 5,500 BC to 4,000 BC.
One of the main interests of the researchers was to determine whether the area was open and favorable for animal grazing (as it is now), partially forested or, as previous studies had suggested, completely covered by canopy forest.
By reconstructing environmental conditions, the researchers found hunter-gatherers at the end Mesolithic period it would most likely be in a partially wooded area. Their analysis found that the area was in a clearing of deciduous forest inhabited for thousands of years by deer, cattle and the first humans who hunted them.
This means that the earliest known farmers in the area used partially open habitats that were already used by earlier human populations. Thus, the land has long been valuable to residents before Stonehenge was a thing. Stonehenge was then built in a space that had already been partially cleared.
These partially cleared areas may have been ideal grazing grounds for larger herbivores such as red deer, wild boar and bison — an extinct species of cattle. Ancient bison bones were found near Stonehenge, along with fish bones that likely contributed to the diet of hunter-gatherers. According to the study, this area may have served for home base for hunter-gatherers.
The find makes the monument even more valuable to researchers who want to learn more about the interactions between the region’s early farmers and the hunter-gatherer societies they eventually replaced.