Stonehenge is just one example – the most famous example – of Europe’s tens of thousands of ancient megalithic structures. Early people in what’s now Europe built these structures, which date back thousands of years. Many appear to be grave sites. Many – like Stonehenge – feature giant stones in intricate and strange arrangements. What early culture built these structures? Did the idea originate, as some have believed, in the Near East or the Mediterranean? Could various ancient cultures have invented the idea for the structures independently? A new study published February 11, 2019, in the peer-reviewed journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences sheds light on these mysteries.
The new study was conducted by Bettina Schulz Paulsson, a prehistoric archaeologist at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden. Her work suggests these European megaliths can be traced back to a single hunter-gatherer culture that originated nearly 7,000 years ago in what’s today the Brittany region of northwestern France.
The study also argues for a cultural exchange over sea routes emanating from northwest France, suggesting a more advanced seafaring technology for that ancient time than was previously believed.
Stonehenge specialists Michael Parker Pearson at University College London, who was not part of the study, supports the new work. He said:
This demonstrates absolutely that Brittany is the origin of the European megalithic phenomenon.
Schulz Paulson spent 10 years creating what she called a megalith evolution using radiocarbon dating from thousands of historic sites across Europe. She wrote in her study:
We have thus been able to demonstrate that the earliest megaliths originated in northwest France and spread along the sea routes of the Mediterranean and Atlantic coasts in three successive principal phases.
What she did was sift through radiocarbon dating data from 2,410 ancient sites across Europe to reconstruct a prehistoric archaeological timeline. The radiocarbon dates came mostly from human remains buried within the sites. The study looked not just at megaliths, but also at so-called premegalithic graves that featured elaborate, earthen tombs but no huge stones. Schulz Paulsson also factored in information on the sites’ architecture, tool use, and burial customs to further narrow the dates.
Price also pointed out that there’s more to be explored here. He wrote:
Karl-Göran Sjögren, a fellow archaeologist at the University of Gothenburg, says he accepts that northwest France was among the first builders. But he isn’t fully convinced there aren’t still earlier megaliths yet to be uncovered, or more evidence that might push back the dates of some known megaliths. Future studies that include ancient DNA and other bioarchaeological evidence on population movements could clear things up, he says.
Bottom line: A new study suggests that tens of thousands of European megaliths, including Stonehenge, can be traced back to a single hunter-gatherer culture originating nearly 7,000 years ago in what’s today the Brittany region of northwestern France.
Deborah Byrd created the EarthSky radio series in 1991 and founded EarthSky.org in 1994. Today, she serves as Editor-in-Chief of this website. She has won a galaxy of awards from the broadcasting and science communities, including having an asteroid named 3505 Byrd in her honor. A science communicator and educator since 1976, Byrd believes in science as a force for good in the world and a vital tool for the 21st century. "Being an EarthSky editor is like hosting a big global party for cool nature-lovers," she says.