Thanks to pig remains, scientists uncover extensive human mobility to sites near Stonehenge

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Thanks to pig remains, scientists uncover extensive human mobility to sites near Stonehenge

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IMAGE: Weighing collagen from Neolithic pigs for isotope analysis.
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Credit: Cardiff University

A mutli-isotope analysis of pigs remains found around henge complexes near Stonehenge has revealed the large extent and scale of movements of human communities in Britain during the Late Neolithic. The findings “demonstrate a level of interaction and social complexity not previously appreciated,” the authors say, and provide insight into more than a century of debate surrounding the origins of people and animals in the Stonehenge landscape. Neolithic henge complexes, located in southern Britain, have long been studied for their role as ceremonial centers. Feasts that were unprecedented at the time were held at these locations. Experts have theorized that these events brought in many people beyond the surrounding area of the henge sites, but little is known about the scale and extent of movement surrounding these feasts. Pigs were the main delicacy at these events. Here, taking advantage of how isotope analyses can provide insight into pig origins and thus serve as a good proxy for human movement, Richard Madgwick and colleagues undertook a multi-isotope approach on 131 pig remains from four Late Neolithic henge complex sites in central southern England. The authors incorporated origin data relating to geology (strontium, 87Sr/86Sr), climate (oxygen, δ18O), and coastal proximity (sulfur, δ34S), while taking into account the impact of diet on these values (δ13C and δ15N). The isotope values were wide-ranging, particularly in the three isotopes most applicable to mobility – 87Sr/86Sr, δ34S and δ18O. The 87Sr/86Sr values cover all the biospheres of Britain. The 45 pig samples studied showed evidence of marine influence in their δ34S values, which the authors say is notable considering these henge sites are more than 50 kilometers from the closest coast. The δ13C data also showed a large range, indicating that the animals were raised in diverse landscapes. Madgwick et al. say that their results are strongly indicative of extensive movement of people and their pigs during this period.

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