Situated in the middle of a plain in Wiltshire, England, the Stonehenge collection of monoliths is one of the most famous and intriguing monuments in the world. Around 4,000 years after its construction, the structure continues to be the subject of numerous studies aimed at elucidating its function, its origin or even the identity of its builders.
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But what did Salisbury Plain look like before Stonehenge was built? That’s the question scientists are trying to answer in a study published in late April in the journal PLO ONE. According to their results, it was not covered by dense forests, as some hypotheses suggested, but by sparse forests.
“There has been intensive study of Stonehenge’s landscape history during the Bronze Age and Neolithic times, but little is known about earlier periods.“explained in a press release, Samuel Hudson of the University of Southampton and lead author of the report. It is to fill this void that the team has tried to go back in time for a few more millennia.
Pollen, spores and DNA dating back to the Mesolithic
To do this, they were not interested in Stonehenge, but in a place located a few kilometers away known as Blick Mead. Listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, along with the megalithic complex, this limestone geological area yielded many discoveries, including flintlocks and animal bones.
These remains showed that the site was continuously occupied for millennia, at least until 4000 BC. To conduct their study, Samuel Hudson and his colleagues analyzed other types of material: fragments of dead insects, pollen, fungal spores and DNA preserved in ancient sediments.
Allied to other methods of analysis, these traces made it possible to obtain information about the species of plants, animals and fungi that lived and died in the place. And so draw the environment that existed at Blick Mead and how it evolved from the late Mesolithic – around 5000 BC – to the Neolithic – around 4000 BC.
“The integration of clues found during previous excavations at Blick Mead, together with our fieldwork, allowed us to learn more about the flora and fauna of the landscape before the construction of the world-famous monument.“, confirmed Samuel Hudson. Their results contradict the existence of a habitat made of dense forests.
Open countryside and sparse forests
According to the study, the environment consisted of a vast open field associated with a mixture of grasslands, wetlands and sparse forests. Far from being desert, it was populated by many herbivores, including aurochs, deer, and wild boar, and was an excellent hunting ground for the human population at the time.
“Earlier theories suggest that the area was heavily forested and cleared in later periods for livestock and monument construction.”, stressed the scientist. “However, our research draws during the pre-Neolithic, hunter-gatherers living in an open field that was home to aurochs and other herbivores.“.
As clues, the researchers found aurochs footprints in some sediments. They were also able to observe that more than half of the animal bones found belonged to this herbivore, while the diet of British populations at the time appeared, elsewhere, to be more made up of wild boar and deer.
Blick Mead’s hunter-gatherers seemed quite aware of the potential of their land, according to the report. Subsequently, they would have taken advantage of local conditions to repeatedly exploit groups of large ungulates, until the first farmers appeared in the region.
A seamless transition between hunter-gatherers and farmers
The transition between these two periods would have been made continuously, say the researchers. The first Neolithic farmers could thus have arrived in lands whose importance humans already recognized and already explored, albeit in a different way. These same lands that would then have been used to graze their cattle.
“Given the rich archeology and longevity [du site], this strongly supports arguments for continuity between the activity of late Mesolithic hunter-gatherers and that of Neolithic monument builders. More specifically, it was an important partially open environment for both groups.“, write the authors in their report.
The results obtained at Blick Mead are “significant for understanding the dynamic nature of the pre-Neolithic landscape” of the region, they specify. Just as this site appeared to constitute important terrain for hunter-gatherers, the findings suggested that Stonehenge may have been used for ritual activities as early as this time.
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A few millennia later, during the construction of the megalithic monument, these same inhabitants appear, according to DNA analyses, to have disappeared or been absorbed by the farming community recently established in England. However, the story still has many gray areas that Hudson and his colleagues hope to clear up with further analysis.
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