In the late 1950s, a Dutch archeologist visited Stonehenge, the prehistoric monument in southern England. The massive stone circle wouldn’t be designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site for another three decades, and there weren’t swarms of tourists or a protective fence.
The archeologist was the only one around that day. He parked his car on the side of the road and walked up to the massive stone circle. The area seemed remote, almost abandoned.
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 scientists believe it buzzed with construction and other activity.
But what about the time before Stonehenge? Was the area wooded? Partially wooded? Or an expansive space ideal for monument building? And what did that mean for the hunter-gatherer societies that once called the area home?
Understanding an Icon
Many historians and archeologists consider Stonehenge an “icon” of British history. Despite its legendary status, much about the memorial has been misunderstood. Because it currently stands alone in open fields, many people long assumed it was always set apart from human activity.
Stonehenge was built in what is now Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire, England. Scientists have come to understand that Stonehenge was constructed in stages around 4,000-5,000 years ago, and it was one of several other monuments in the vicinity.
The other monuments were made from less durable materials, such as timber, and they decayed after several 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 monument standing, and it has captured imaginations for thousands of years. In the twelfth century, History of the Kings of Britain described Stonehenge’s origins and claimed the stones came from Ireland and became part of a monument intended to honor the Britons killed by Saxons. Scientists now call this legend “fantasy,” partly because the Saxons didn’t arrive until millennia later.
Although scientists can now separate Stonehenge fact from fiction, many unanswered questions remain. But there appears to be a promising answer for a question researchers have long considered pressing — what was the area like for ancient hunters and gatherers before the famed monument was erected?
Land Before Time
According to a 2022 study in Plos One, researchers were able to get a better idea of what the land around Stonehenge likely looked like while hunter-gatherer societies still lived in the area.
To learn more about life pre-Stonehenge, a group of researchers reconstructed the environmental conditions. They examined animal remains, sedimentary DNA and other preserved ancient samples such as pollen and spores. They also used optically stimulated luminescence (OSL) and radiocarbon dating to determine what the land resembled from 5,500 B.C. to 4,000 B.C.
One of the researchers’ primary interests was determining whether the area was open and conducive to animal grazing (like it is now), partially wooded or as previous studies had suggested, entirely covered in a canopy forest.
By reconstructing the environmental conditions, the researchers found the hunter-gatherers in the late Mesolithic period would have most likely been in a partially-wooded area. Their analysis found the area was in a clearing of deciduous woodland inhabited for thousands of years by deer, cattle and the early people who hunted them.
This means the earliest-known farmers in the area were using partially-open habitats that had already been used by earlier human populations. Thus, the land was long valuable to inhabitants before Stonehenge was a thing. Stonehenge was then constructed in a space that was already partially cleared.
These partially cleared areas may have been ideal grazing grounds for larger herbivores such as red deer, wild boar and aurochs — an extinct bovine species. Ancient bones from aurochs were found near Stonehenge, along with fish bones, which likely contributed to the diet of hunter-gatherers. According to the study, this area may have served as a home base for hunter-gatherers.
The finding makes the monument even more valuable to researchers who want to learn more about the interactions between early farmers in the region and the hunter-gatherer societies they eventually replaced.