Stonehenge, the prehistoric stone circle monument located on Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire, England, has fascinated historians and archaeologists for centuries. They believe it was constructed over 1,500 years during the Neolithic era, between 2500 and 3000 B.C., and though evidence suggests it was once used as a burial ground, scholars are still uncertain as to its larger purpose and significance. Now, researchers conducting an archaeological dig in the Wiltshire town of Amesbury, the nearest population center to Stonehenge, have uncovered startling new evidence indicating that people had already been living in the area for millennia by the time the monument was built.
Among the artifacts that researchers have unearthed at the Blick Mead archaeological site in Amesbury are the discarded bones of several large animals and numerous burned flints. Using carbon dating techniques, the scientists have been able to confirm that the new finds date to some 10,000 years ago, around 8820 B.C., when they believe that large feasts took place at the site. While Stonehenge, also located in the Amesbury parish of Wiltshire, wasn’t constructed until sometime between 2500 and 3000 B.C., the new evidence indicates that the region’s earliest human residents began settling there thousands of years earlier.
Though many of the bones found at the Blick Mead site belonged to large animals such as aurochs (giant cattle twice the size of modern-day bulls) and red deer, the site has also yielded a number of smaller animal bones. Late last year, researchers discovered evidence that prehistoric Britons living in the region consumed frog’s legs thousands of years before they became a French delicacy.
As the closest settlement to Stonehenge, Amesbury attracts some 1 million visitors a year. Previously, the town of Thatcham in Berkshire, located some 40 miles to the east, held the distinction of being Britain’s oldest continuously settled area, but evidence of human settlement there only dates back to 7700 B.C. According to the findings of the Blick Mead project, Amesbury has now supplanted Thatcham as the starting point of British history during the Neolithic era. Last week, the Guinness Book of World Records officially recognized the town’s new distinction.
According to David Jacques, a research fellow in archaeology at the University of Buckingham who led the dig, the River Avon, which runs through the area, would have functioned like a main road for people living or traveling nearby. Another reason people may have been attracted to the area for settlement was the distinctive bright pink coloring of the flint, which is unique to that region of Britain. The color is produced by a type of algae called Hildenbrandia rivularis, which grows due to a combination of sunlight and the unusually warm spring water (between 50 and 57 degrees Fahrenheit) found in the region.
Researchers hope the new discoveries at Amesbury may go some way towards answering the age-old question of why Stonehenge was built where it was.
As Jacques told BBC News, “The site blows the lid off the Neolithic revolution in a number of ways. It provides evidence for people staying put, clearing land, building, and presumably worshiping, monuments. The area was clearly a hub point for people to come to from many miles away, and in many ways was a forerunner for what later went on at Stonehenge itself.”