That is what the Salisbury Plain regarded like earlier than Stonehenge

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Stonehenge as viewed from the northeast
Enlarge / Stonehenge as seen from the northeast, displaying the post-and-lintel building of the Sarsen Circle.

Timothy Darvill

Stonehenge was an vital place for 1000’s of years earlier than individuals positioned the primary stones, in response to a current examine. Archaeologists used the microscopic stays of bugs, pollen, fungal spores, and historic DNA preserved within the soil to reconstruct the traditional atmosphere of southwest England’s Salisbury Plain. Six-thousand years in the past, the plain was a mosaic of open grassland and woods, the place archaeological proof reveals that folks as soon as hunted herds of extinct cattle referred to as aurochs.

Samuel Hudson, an environmental scientist on the College of Southampton, and his colleagues say their findings recommend that lots of the ceremonial websites and routes left behind by Britain’s earliest farmers—the builders of Stonehenge—could date again 1000’s of years to land utilized by the primary occupiers of Britain after the tip of the final Ice Age.

What occurs when worlds collide?

A few mile away from Stonehenge lies an older, much less well-known archaeological web site referred to as Blick Mead. Right here, the Salisbury Plain meets the floodplain of the River Avon. Stone instruments (greater than 100,000 of them), butchered animal bones, and charred fish bones present that folks got here to this place repeatedly for 1000’s of years in the course of the Mesolithic interval.

When Hudson and his colleagues radiocarbon dated materials from the oldest layers at Blick Mead, they discovered that folks had been looking, fishing, and consuming on the web site as early as 8000 BCE. It’s in all probability not a coincidence {that a} precursor to Stonehenge dates to across the similar time: a hoop of pine posts that stood a bit greater than half a kilometer away from the a lot later web site at Stonehenge.

The individuals who constructed the wood circle and hunted at Blick Mead have been descendants of the primary individuals to set foot in Britain after the glaciers receded: hunter-gatherers intently associated to the ten,000-year-old “Cheddar Man” and, in all probability, to the individuals who practiced ritual cannibalism in what’s now Somerset.

Materials from the youngest layers at Blick Mead dates to round 3400 BCE, a number of centuries after a brand new group of individuals arrived on British shores. These new settlers have been the descendants of individuals from the japanese Mediterranean, in what’s now Turkey, they usually introduced a brand new lifestyle with them—one primarily based on farming and elevating livestock. The Neolithic interval had come to Britain.

A number of centuries later, round 3000 BCE, the descendants of the newcomers dug a round ditch, backed up by an earth embankment, to encompass a hoop of holes by which they buried the cremated stays of the useless. This location was the primary section of building at what’s now Stonehenge.

In Britain’s archaeological report, the transition from hunter-gatherer tradition to early farming tradition is abrupt. With one attention-grabbing exception, we don’t get to see what occurred when these first farmers arrived and met indigenous hunter-gatherers. We simply see that abruptly, traces of Neolithic tradition substitute what got here earlier than.

However Hudson and his colleagues say the panorama itself holds some vital clues.

A large-open panorama

Hudson and his colleagues sifted via historic soil at Blick Mead, searching for tiny traces of the previous atmosphere: items of long-dead bugs, pollen grains, and fungal spores. They even sequenced historic DNA from the soil, which revealed extra details about the species of crops, animals, and fungi that had lived and died close to the positioning. Radiocarbon courting and optically stimulated luminescence (which measures how lengthy it’s been since mineral grains have been uncovered to daylight) have been additionally obtained from every soil layer on the web site. This let the archaeologists observe how the atmosphere close to Blick Mead and Stonehenge modified over a number of thousand years.

It turned out that round 6000 BCE, the realm round Blick Mead was primarily woodland scrub, the place apple, dogwood, and ivy grew, together with willow and horsetail nearer to the river. Over the following few centuries, although, that scrub forest gave technique to a big, open meadow amid a patchwork panorama of grassland, forest, and wetland.

In different phrases, it was the right panorama for herds of untamed cattle to graze—and for individuals to hunt them. And for roughly 4,500 years, that’s precisely what occurred at Blick Mead.

Some Mesolithic sediment layers on the web site nonetheless maintain the hoofprints of long-extinct aurochs, and greater than half the animal bones archaeologists have unearthed there come from that animal. That’s uncommon within the UK, the place wild boar and purple deer appear to have made up a extra vital proportion of Mesolithic individuals’s diets.

However the space round Blick Mead was particular, and the hunter-gatherers who lived right here clearly knew it.

The aurochs herds possible performed a major function in conserving the meadow clear; Hudson and his colleagues discovered DNA and pollen from crops like clover, sheep’s sorrel, and forget-me-nots, which are likely to develop the place sheep or cattle graze after which fertilize the soil with their dung. And fungal spores within the web site’s sediment embody species that are likely to thrive in dung-enriched soil. Moreover a number of stone ax-heads unearthed on the web site, archaeologists haven’t discovered any direct proof that folks actively maintained the meadow by clearing bushes. Nonetheless, hunter-gatherers elsewhere on this planet have discovered comparable methods of managing their looking grounds.


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