New Theory on Why Stonehenge Was Built
New Theory on Why Stonehenge Was Built

View photo

Researchers have uncovered animal bones, flint tools, and evidence of burning that predates the first …

Editor's Note: This story was updated April 24 at 10:20 a.m. ET.

A site near Stonehenge has revealed archaeological evidence that hunters lived just a mile from Stonehenge roughly 5,000 years prior to the construction of the first stones, new research suggests.

What's more, the site, which was occupied continuously for 3,000 years, had evidence of burning, thousands of flint tool fragments and bones of wild aurochs , a type of extinct giant cow. That suggests the area near Stonehenge may have been an auroch migration route that became an ancient feasting site, drawing people together from across different cultures in the region, wrote lead researcher David Jacques of the Open University in the United Kingdeom, in an email.

"We may have found the cradle of Stonehenge, the reason why it is where it is," Jacques wrote. [In Photos: A Walk Through Stonehenge]

The new discovery may also identify the people who first erected structures at Stonehenge. A few gigantic pine posts, possibly totem poles, were raised at Stonehenge between 8,500 and 10,000 years ago, but until now there was scant evidence of occupation in the area that long ago. The new research suggests those ancient structures may perhaps have been raised to honor a sacred hunting ground.

Mysterious monument

For decades, people have wondered at the enigmatic stone structures erected roughly 5,000 years ago in the plains of Wiltshire, England. No one knows why ancient people built the structure: some believe it was a place of ancient worship or a sun calendar, whereas still others think it was a symbol of unity or even that Stonehenge was inspired by a sound illusion.

The large megaliths, known as sarsens, are up to 30 feet tall and weigh up to 25 tons, while the smaller bluestones weigh up to 4 tons. Researchers think the giant boulders came from a quarry near Marlborough Downs, just 20 miles (32 kilometers) from the iconic site, while the bluestones likely came from Preseli Hills in Wales, nearly 156 miles (250 km) away from Stonehenge.

Old photographs

Jacques was looking through archival photographs of the region surrounding Stonehenge when he spotted a site known as Vespasian's Camp, just a mile from Stonehenge in nearby Amesbury.

Realizing that it hadn't been fully surveyed, Jacques began to investigate the area, which harbored a freshwater spring.

Because animals like to stop and drink at such watering holes, Jacques wondered whether ancient man may have settled nearby as well.

The team uncovered roughly 350 animal bones and 12,500 flint tools or fragments, as well as lots of evidence of burning. Carbon dating suggested the area was occupied by humans from 7500 B.C. to 4700 B.C. — roughly 5,000 years prior to the erection of the first stones at Stonehenge. [See Photos of the Stonehenge Hunting Ground ]

"The spring may have originally attracted large animals to it, which would have aided hunting and may have led to associations that the area was a sacred hunting ground," Jacques wrote.

In addition, the researchers found tools made from stone from one region of England, but fashioned in the style of another region (for instance, a stone tool made from Welsh or Cornwall slate, but made in a style typical of Sussex). That suggests the people from different regions were coming together at the site, Jacques wrote.

Ancient builders?

The findings could help researchers pinpoint why the ancient builders of Stonehenge chose the place they did, Jacques said. 

"We have found a bridge from which transmission of cultural memory about the 'specialness' of the place where the stones were later being put up was possible," Jacques wrote. "We are getting closer to understanding their reasons for putting it up — it is all to do with ancestors, but those ancestors go much further back than has previously been realised."

The findings show "there was a substantial interest in the Stonehenge landscape well before the stones were hauled there and erected," said Timothy Darvill, an archaeologist at Bournemouth University in the U.K., who was not involved in the study.

Excavations dating to 2008 at Stonehenge also confirm earlier use at the megalithic site, Darvill wrote. However, what makes the Amesbury discovery special is the large trove of auroch bones found in the area, which suggests the spring was on a natural migration route for the wild aurochs, he said.

A program about the Amesbury site will air on BBC 4 on April 29.

Follow Tia Ghose on Twitter @tiaghose. Follow LiveScience @livescience, Facebook & Google+. Original article on

Copyright 2013 LiveScience, a TechMediaNetwork company. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
View Comments (689)

Recommended for You

  • Republicans warn world that Obama U.N. plan could be undone

    By Valerie Volcovici WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Obama administration's plan for U.N. climate change talks encountered swift opposition after its release Tuesday, with Republican leaders warning other countries to "proceed with caution" in negotiations with Washington because any deal could be…

  • California getting 'second-hand smog' from Asia, researchers say

    By Sharon Bernstein SACRAMENTO, Calif. (Reuters) - California is suffering from "second-hand smog" drifting in from Asia and other places, researchers said on Tuesday, even as the state's prolonged drought has made air quality worse. About 10 percent of ozone pollution, the main ingredient in…

  • Hurricane-strength winds pummel Europe, four killed

    By Michael Hogan HAMBURG (Reuters) - At least four people were killed on Tuesday when hurricane-force winds lashed northern Europe in one of the most severe storms in years, forcing flights to be canceled and disrupting road, train and marine traffic. The Dutch meteorological office issued a red…

  • United States sets official strategy for Paris climate talks

    By Valerie Volcovici WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Obama administration on Tuesday published plans to cut greenhouse gas emissions up to 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025, part of a strategy to generate momentum for a global agreement later this year on combating climate change. The formal…

  • Air and sea traffic disrupted as 120 km winds batter Netherlands

    Spring storms battered the Netherlands with gusts of up to 120 kilometers an hour on Tuesday, causing Amsterdam's Schiphol airport to cancel flights and the closure of two container terminals at the port of Rotterdam. Gale force winds sweeping in from the North Sea disrupted land and marine…

  • Heavy rains trigger flood fears in Kashmir; 17 dead

    By Fayaz Bukhari SRINAGAR, India (Reuters) - Heavy rains and a landslide in the Himalayan region of Kashmir killed 17 people, police said on Tuesday, as Indian authorities continued working to rescue stranded villagers, with unseasonal rains raising fears of flash floods in the mountainous north. …

  • Ocean warming suggests 50 percent chance of El Nino-Australia

    By Colin Packham SYDNEY (Reuters) - Recent warming of the Pacific Ocean may signal an El Nino weather event is forming, the Australian Bureau of Meteorology said on Tuesday. Climate models indicate the central tropical Pacific Ocean is likely to continue to warm, with El Nino thresholds to be…

  • Vanuatu risks long-term food insecurity after monster cyclone: U.N.

    By Alisa Tang BANGKOK (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The monster cyclone that hit Vanuatu earlier this month wiped out more than 90 percent of the archipelago's crops, putting its people at risk of a secondary emergency and long-term food insecurity, the United Nations warned on Monday. Tropical…

  • Heavy rains trigger flood fears in Kashmir; six dead

    By Fayaz Bukhari SRINAGAR, India (Reuters) - A landslide in the Himalayan region of Kashmir killed six people and left 10 missing, police said on Monday, as unseasonal rains swept India, damaging crops and raising fears of flash floods in the mountainous north. Hundreds of people fled their homes…

  • Harsh weather cripples fishing and tourism on Cameroon's coast

    By Elias Ntungwe Ngalame KRIBI, Cameroon (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - For over 15 years, Raoul Meno has been fishing the waters off the coastal town of Kribi in southern Cameroon. A bout of persistent heavy rains and surging tides this year has made fishing in Kribi increasingly difficult and…

  • Air Canada plane landed short, hit antennas in Halifax accident

    By Mark Blinch HALIFAX, Nova Scotia (Reuters) - An Air Canada plane that suffered heavy damage in an accident in the east coast city of Halifax on Sunday landed short of the runway and hit an antenna array, losing its landing gear, safety officials said. "They touched down 1,100 feet (335 meters)…

  • U.S. to submit plans to fight global warming; most others delay

    By Alister Doyle and Valerie Volcovici OSLO/WASHINGTON - The United States will submit plans for slowing global warming to the United Nations early this week but most governments will miss an informal March 31 deadline, complicating work on a global climate deal due in December. The U.S.…

  • Modi's popularity in rural India punctured by discontent, suicides

    By Mayank Bhardwaj VAIDI, India (Reuters) - Over a dozen debt-laden farmers have committed suicide in recent weeks in India, and discontent in many rural areas against government policies is turning into anger against Prime Minister Narendra Modi less than a year after he swept into office. …

  • Chile desert rains sign of climate change: chief weather scientist

    By Rosalba O'Brien SANTIAGO (Reuters) - The heavy rainfall that battered Chile's usually arid north this week happened because of climate change, a senior meteorologist said, as the region gradually returns to normal after rivers broke banks and villages were cut off. "For Chile, this particular…

  • Mexico unveils national strategy for Paris climate talks

    By Valerie Volcovici WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Mexico on Friday said it will cap its greenhouse gas emissions by 2026, becoming one of the first countries to formally submit its national climate plan to the United Nations ahead of a climate summit in Paris in December. Mexico's Foreign and…

  • Fed must take account of global economy in U.S. outlook: Yellen

    SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - The Federal Reserve must take the global economy into account when judging the U.S. domestic outlook, Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen said on Friday, noting that a stronger dollar buoyed by weakness abroad may restrain U.S. exports Still, she added, U.S. consumer…

  • In reversal, crash-hit Lufthansa agrees to two-crew in cockpit rule

    Lufthansa said on Friday it would introduce new rules requiring two crew members in cockpits at all times, a swift reversal after its CEO said such a change was not needed despite the crash at its Germanwings subsidiary. The European Union said it would now advise all EU airlines to require two…

  • Sierra Leone capital 'eerily quiet' amid Ebola lockdown

    By Umaru Fofana FREETOWN (Reuters) - The capital of Sierra Leone was "eerily quiet" on Friday at the start of a three-day national lockdown aimed at accelerating the end of an Ebola epidemic in the worst affected country. Liberia has just one known case left and the three countries have set a…

  • Lufthansa to toughen up cockpit rules

    Lufthansa said it will introduce new rules requiring two crew members to be in the cockpit at all times after one of the pilots at its Germanwings unit crashed a plane in the French Alps. Prosecutors believe Andreas Lubitz, 27, locked himself alone in the cockpit of the Airbus A320 on Tuesday and…

  • Poland to charge two Russian officials over Kaczynski plane crash

    Poland said on Friday it would bring charges against two Russian air traffic controllers over a 2010 plane crash which killed then Polish president Lech Kaczynski, a move likely to damage bilateral relations already strained by the Ukraine crisis. Prosecutor Ireneusz Szelag from the District…