Study examines habitat conditions faced by early farmers and monument builders


Hunter-gatherers used open forest conditions for millennia before the Stonehenge monuments were built, according to a study published April 27, 2022 in the open-access journal PLOS ONE by Samuel Hudson of the University of Southampton, UK, and colleagues.

Much research has explored the Bronze Age and Neolithic history of the area surrounding Stonehenge, but less is known about the earlier eras of this area. This leaves open questions about how the ancients and wildlife used this area before the famous archaeological monuments were built. In this article, Hudson and his colleagues reconstruct the environmental conditions at the site of Blick Mead, a pre-Neolithic hunter-gatherer site on the edge of the Stonehenge World Heritage Site.

The authors combine pollen, spores, sedimentary DNA and animal remains to characterize the site’s pre-Neolithic habitat, inferring partially open woodland conditions, which would have been beneficial for large herbivores like aurochs, as well as for hunter-gatherer communities. This study confirms earlier evidence that the Stonehenge area was not covered in closed canopy forest at this time, as previously proposed.

This study also provides date estimates for human activity at Blick Mead. The results indicate that hunter-gatherers used this site for 4,000 years up to the time of the first known farmers and monument builders in the region, who would also have benefited from the space provided in the open environments. These results indicate that early farmers and monument builders in the Stonehenge area encountered open habitats that had already been maintained and used by large grazers and earlier human populations.

Further study at similar sites will provide important insights into interactions between hunter-gatherers and early farming communities in the UK and elsewhere. Additionally, this study provides techniques for combining sedimentary DNA, other ecological data, and stratigraphic data to interpret the ancient environment at a site where such information is difficult to assess.

The authors add: “The World Heritage Site of Stonehenge is globally renowned for its rich Neolithic and Bronze Age monumental landscape, but little is known of its importance to Mesolithic populations. Environmental research at Blick Mead suggests that hunter-gatherers had already chosen part of this landscape, an alluvial glade, as a persistent place of hunting and occupation.”

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