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14 September 2008
Stonehenge partiers came from afar, cattle teeth show

Prehistoric cattle remains found close to Stonehenge suggest that partying pilgrims brought the animals from afar, scientists report. The remains support a theory that the megalithic monument near Salisbury, in southern England, drew ancient peoples from distant regions to celebrate important feast ceremonies. And the feasts, it seems, were movable.
     Cattle slaughtered during ritual festivities at the site may have come from as far away as Wales, Jane Evans of the United Kingdom's Natural Environment Research Council announced this week at the British Association Festival of Science in Liverpool. The discovery is based on 4,500-year-old cattle teeth and bones recently unearthed at a late Stone Age village at Durrington Walls, less than 3km (2 miles) from the famous stone circle. "We are seeing physical evidence of the movement of populations into the [Stonehenge] area for the feasting," said Evans, a member of the research team.
     Researchers analyzed isotopes, or different varieties, of atoms of the chemical element strontium that was preserved in the animals' tooth enamel. These atoms provide a chemical insight into the geology of the region where the animal lived. The findings indicate all but one of the cattle studied were raised beyond the chalky, limestone-rich lands that surround Stonehenge and define much of southern England, Evans said. And teeth samples from two cattle suggest they came from outside England altogether. "These animals were grazing on soils that developed on relatively old rocks," Evans said, adding that the nearest locations where such rocks are found are Wales and Scotland. Wales is the likelier of the two, Evans said, because it is closer to Stonehenge and has other archaeological connections. For instance, the Stonehenge monument includes bluestones that were transported from southwest Wales.
     The new findings, which have yet to be published, are based on the work of Sarah Viner, a graduate student who was working under the supervision of animal archaeologist Umberto Albarella at Britain's University of Sheffield. The results prove that people were taking their livestock to Stonehenge from elsewhere in Britain, Albarella said. "People were gathering from quite a large region," he said. Furthermore, cattle bones excavated at the ancient settlement revealed no evidence of newborn calves. "If you have a site where animals were actually reared, you will almost certainly find a number of newborn casualties, but we are not finding that at all," Albarella said. "So I'm pretty confident this is a consumer site," he added. "It is a site with a special purpose - where people are gathering, probably for feasting and eating an awful lot of meat."

Sources: The Guardian (11 September 2008), National Geographic News (12 September 2008)

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