Stonehenge Builders Were Immigrants From What is Now Turkey
A study is throwing new light on the population and history of Neolithic Britain. It provides evidence that Stonehenge’s builders were the descendants of farmers who had temporarily settled in modern-day Iberia but originated in what is now Turkey. The research involving the examination of DNA samples indicates that migrant farmers almost completely displaced the native hunter-gatherers, who had roamed the island for thousands of years.
A team of researchers from the Natural History Museum of London carried out the study that examined the DNA of 53 individuals who lived in Britain between 4500 and 12,000 years ago. According to the Independent, the experts examined “47 Neolithic farmer skeletons dating from 6,000 to 4,500 years ago and six Mesolithic hunter-gatherer skeletons.” The results of the DNA analysis allowed the team to compare the genetic makeup of populations from two very different epochs. Then the DNA from the sample of Neolithic farmers was compared to other populations who lived in the same era in continental Europe.
Neolithic farmers. (Out of the Woods)
The Path to Neolithic Britain
The researchers were taken aback by what they found after studying all the data. Based on the evidence, the Neolithic people who were responsible for Stonehenge originated in the region of modern-day Turkey. The BBC reports that they were probably part of a “massive expansion of people out of Anatolia in 6,000 BC that introduced farming to Europe.” They were probably looking for more arable land to feed their growing population.
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One group took the Danube route and settled over much of central and western Europe and the other group made their way via the Mediterranean to Iberia. The majority of the population in Britain at the time of the construction of Stonehenge, around 3000 BC were descended from those who settled in Iberia. As the BBC reports, the evidence indicates that the British sample of Neolithic agriculturists DNA “most closely resembled Neolithic people from Iberia (modern Spain and Portugal).”
A megalithic tomb (dolmen) just below the summit of the Puig Rodó (1056 m, Moià, Comarca de Bages, Catalonia, Spain). (Vincent van Zeijst/CC BY SA 3.0) The first Iberian dolmens were created by Neolithic people.
Based on the genetic evidence, it seems that many of the Iberian migrants arrived in Wales or Cornwall first and the most likely explanation for this is that they sailed in boats that followed the coastline or island hopped. Although the Independent notes that “some British groups had a minor amount of ancestry from groups that followed the Danube route.” This would suggest that some farmers also made their way to Britain via France.
An analysis of the data showed that these farmers, who according to the BBC “reached Britain in about 4,000BC,” nearly entirely replaced the existing population. The people who inhabited the island before the newcomers were mainly hunter-gatherers who lived by hunting game, fishing, and foraging for food. When comparing the DNA of the Neolithic farmers to others in Europe, the researchers found something else surprising. In the group that made their way from Turkey via the Danube, the found evidence that they mixed with the local hunter-gatherers. However, this was not the case with the 47 samples of Neolithic remains found in Britain, who did not appear to have mixed with the natives.
The inside of a Neolithic house constructed on Skara Brae in Orkney, northern Scotland. (Wknight94/CC BY SA 3.0)
Why Did the Hunter-Gatherers Disappear?
This should not be seen as indicating that the new migrants waged a campaign of genocidal violence against the pre-existing population. More likely the hunter-gatherers were too small in number to leave a genetic trace. Only in the remote West of Scotland is there any real evidence for the DNA of the hunter-gatherers among later populations. This suggests that those who lived by hunting and foraging were forced to more remote areas by the incoming farmers, and this could also help to explain the lack of mixing between the newcomers and the original inhabitants.
The migrants whose forebears originated in the Eastern Mediterranean appear to have been very different from the native inhabitants. They were fairer and had paler skin than those who lived in modern-day Britain in the Mesolithic period. It appears that the native hunter-gathers, such as Cheddar Man who lived around 7000 BC, had very dark complexions but blue or green eyes, and they were very dissimilar to any present-day groups.
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Cheddar Man, a Mesolithic hunger-gatherer with thick, dark hair and blue eyes. (Channel 4/Tom Barnes)
Stonehenge’s Builders and an Agricultural and Social Revolution
According to the Independent, the migrants brought “farming techniques, pottery, and new religious cultures and beliefs” with them. They appear to have developed a very sophisticated society and this is evidenced by their construction of Stonehenge and other megaliths. Moreover, their farming methods changed the physical landscape of the island. It is worth noting that the Iberian migrants were later utterly displaced by newcomers from the Bell Beaker culture (2800-2300 BC).
The study allows experts to better understand the pre-history of the British Isles. The DNA evidence demonstrates that farming was introduced by migrants and not adopted by the native hunter-gatherers. It also proves the importance of migration in the distant past. The findings of the study have been published in the academic journal Nature Ecology & Evolution.
By Ed Whelan