Long before the Neolithic people erected the majestic blue and sarsen stones of Stonehenge, Mesolithic or Middle Stone Age hunter-gatherers frequented the site, using it as a hunting ground. Later, according to a new study, farmers and monument builders moved to the region.
Previous research had suggested that prior to the construction of Stonehenge, the surrounding landscape included a closed canopy forest. “There has been a long debate as to whether Stonehenge’s monumental archeology was created in an uninhabited woodland landscape or whether it was built in an already partially open area of pre-existing significance for late Mesolithic hunter-gatherers,” the researchers wrote in the study.
Now, the new research shows that the area was historically an open woodland where large herbivores such as the aurochs, an extinct bovine species, once grazed. Given the site’s high utilization over time, it is likely there was continuity between Mesolithic hunter-gatherers and Neolithic, or New Stone Age monument builders, the researchers said.
In other words, it is not that the builders of Stonehenge have suddenly “discovered” the site for the first time; rather, it seems that people have known this place for centuries.
Related: Why was Stonehenge built?
An early form of Stonehenge was built around 5,000 years ago, while the famous stone circle that still stands today was put together in the late Neolithic, around 2500 BC according to English heritage, the UK trust that operates the site. Salisbury Plain, the plateau on which Stonehenge sits, was considered a sacred area by the ancients and holds evidence of older structures dating back 10,500 years.
The study centered on Blick Mead, one of the earliest hunter-gatherer locations on the edge of the World Heritage Site of Stonehenge. Previous excavations by Blick Mead have confirmed that Mesolithic people settled there before 8,000 BC and new research suggests that humans continued to use this area into the Neolithic period.
To investigate Blick Mead, Samuel Hudson, a researcher at the University of Southampton in the UK, and colleagues dug a newly opened trench at the site and analyzed ancient pollen, spores and DNA, as well as animal remains, found inside. samples to learn more about how the ancients used the land during the late Mesolithic, between 5200 BC and 4700 BC
Their analysis revealed that the area was characterized by wet meadows that were next to an open grassland with a nearby deciduous forest, the team wrote in the study. Wild animals would have grazed in those open fields, and the hunter-gatherer communities that lived there 4,000 years before Stonehenge was built would later hunt the grazers, the researchers found.
“The World Heritage Site of Stonehenge is recognized worldwide for its rich monumental Neolithic and Bronze Age landscape, but little is known of its significance to Mesolithic peoples,” the study authors said in a statement. But now it is clear that “the hunter-gatherers had already chosen part of this landscape, an alluvial clearing, as a persistent place for hunting and occupation.”
The study was published online April 27 in the journal PLOS One.
Originally published in Live Science.