Life Science Stonehenge discovery reveals first residents of ancient site

Stonehenge discovery reveals first residents of ancient site

Cremated human remains from Stonehenge provide evidence on the life of those few buried at the moment. Photo: Getty
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A new study has shed a surprising light on the people who actually built the 5000-year old Neolithic monument in southern England known as Stonehenge.

Archaeological research into the first long-term residents buried amid the ring of  25-tonne stones shows they were from the same region as the rocks used in construction, hundreds of kilometres away, findings published in the journal Nature on Friday morning (AEST) reveal.

New developments in the strontium isotopic analysis of cremated bones revealed that at least 10 of the 25 cremated individuals analysed did not spend their lives on the Wessex chalk on which the monument is found.

Instead, it suggests that their most plausible origin lies in west Wales – 225km away – which science says is the source of the bluestones erected in the early stage of the monument’s construction.

According to the study’s lead author, Dr Christophe Snoeck, a researcher at Vrije University in Belgium, the work proves that both people and materials were moving between the regions.

“Forty percent of the people who we analyzed could not have lived in Stonehenge for the last decade or so of their life,” Mr Snoeck said.

“I know today everyone moves around, but we’re talking 5000 years ago.”

Cremated occipital bone fragments from Stonehenge. Photo: Nature

The key breakthrough discovered that strontium, a heavy element found in bone, resists the high temperatures of a funeral pyre, which can top 1000 degrees Celsius.

That while the extreme heat destroys all organic matter, including DNA, it seals the element’s unique signature, isolating it.

Plants absorb strontium from the soil, and that strontium is then incorporated into our bones, reflecting the place where the plants grew, AFP reports.

“But all the inorganic matter survives, and there is a huge among of information contained in the inorganic fraction of human remains,” Mr Snoeck told AFP.

Mr Snoeck then compared the levels of different isotopes against a national database to work out where the cremated individuals spent the last years of their lives.

It found that 10 of the 25 had spent at least the last 10 years of their lives in a different region as their strontium profile did not match what is known of the region’s flora.

The new findings “suggest that people from the Preseli Mountains in west Wales not only supplied the bluestones used to build the stone circle, but moved with the stones and were buried there too,” concluded John Pouncett, a co-author of the study and Spatial Technology Officer at Oxford’s School or Archaeology.

Mystery still surrounds the reason why the pre-historic humans erected Stonehenge, including the beliefs and rituals that animated their culture architects.

There are between 150 and 240 cremation burials at Stonehenge, according to a recent study in the journal Antiquity.

-with agencies

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