19 December 2013
A glimpse in the life of a Neolithic man
A Neolithic man who was buried in a long barrow 1.5 miles west of Stonehenge, 5,500 years ago has been poked, prodded, and reconstructed by scientists and placed in a spot of prominence to welcome tourists to a new Stonehenge visitors center. It is the most detailed study ever carried out of the life story of a prehistoric Briton.
A leading forensic specialist has also used that prehistoric Briton's skull to produce the most life-like, and arguably the most accurate, reconstruction of a specific individual's face from British prehistory. The new research gives a rare glimpse into upper class life back in the Neolithic.
This ancient man was born around 5500 years ago, well to the west or north-west of the Stonehenge area, probably in Wales. Aged two, he was taken east to an area of chalk geology - probably Wiltshire. However, aged 9, he then moved back to the west and then, aged 11, he moved back east once more. Aged 12, 14 and 15, he travelled back and forth between east and west for short durations and at increased frequency. Scientists, analysing successive layers of the enamel in his teeth, have been able to work all this out by analysing the isotopic values of the chemical elements strontium and oxygen which reflected the sources of his drinking water.
He grew into a taller than average man, reaching an adult height of 172cm. In Neolithic Britain, the average height for adult males was 165cm, while in Britain today it is 176. He probably weighed around 76kg and had fairly slender build. Throughout his life, he seems to have consumed a much less coarse diet than was normal at the time. His teeth show much lighter wear than many other examples from the Neolithic. He also had a much higher percentage of meat and dairy produce in his diet than would probably have been normal at the time.
By analysing nitrogen isotope levels in his teeth, a scientific team at the University of Southampton, led by archaeologist Dr Alistair Pike, have worked out that he obtained 80-90% of his protein from animals. A detailed osteological examination of his skeleton, carried out by English Heritage scientist, Dr Simon Mays, has revealed that he probably led a relatively peaceful life. The only visible injuries showed that he had damaged a knee ligament and torn a back thigh muscle. There is also no evidence of severe illness - and an examination of tooth enamel deformation levels suggest that at least his childhood was free of nutritional stress or severe disease. But he seems to have died relatively young, probably in his late 20s or 30s. At present it is not known what caused his death.
However, he was probably given an impressive funeral - and certainly buried in a ritually very important location. Initially his body was almost certainly covered by a turf mound but some years or decades later, this mound was massively enlarged to form a very substantial mausoleum - today known as Winterbourne Stoke long barrow, one of the grandest known from Neolithic Britain. He was the only individual buried there during his era - although a thousand or more years later, several more people were interred in less prominent locations within the monument. This great mausoleum - 83 metres long and several metres high can still be seen today some one and half miles west of Stonehenge. All the new evidence combines to suggest that he was a very important individual - a prominent member of the early Neolithic elite.
The research yielded a number of fascinating new revelations about that period of British prehistory. First of all, it hints that far from being an egalitarian society, as many have tended to think, the evidence points in the opposite direction. The long barrow which was constructed over his grave was primarily a place of ritual, not just a place associated with burial. By having one erected over him, he was being given a very special honour.
Secondly, it shows, arguably for the first time, that high social status in the early Neolithic was already a matter of heredity. The isotopic tests on the man's teeth show quite clearly that his privileged high meat diet was already a key feature in his life during childhood.
Thirdly, the scientific investigation suggests that at least the elite of the period was associated with a very wide geographical area. In other words, they were not simply a local elite but, at the very least, a regional one. The fact that he seems to have moved back and forth between the west of Britain and the southern chalklands every few years, at least during his childhood and teenage years, suggests that his family had important roles in both areas.
Given the ritual significance of the Stonehenge area, even at this early stage, it is possible that he and his father and other ancestors before him had been hereditary tribal or even conceivably pan-tribal priests or shamans in a possibly semi-nomadic society. It is also likely that such people also played roles in the secular governance of emerging political entities at the time.
Edited from The Independent (16 December 2013)