Saturday, May 19, 2012

A new unified theory for Stonehenge. Britain’s first community recycling centre – designed for winter survival?

Stonehenge (Brrrr... Neolithic food distribution point - grilled pork a speciality - at least in the dead of winter?)


 Stonehenge was the focal point of a largely settled agrarian Neolithic culture that devised a novel means of surviving the winter months. It involved communal feasting on spit-roasted pork – but with a difference. The pigs were fed on the flesh of the deceased, who may have died of natural causes, after removal of the heart and other organs, the latter perhaps being buried with due ceremony at a particular spot some 25 miles away that gradually, over the course of some 100 years became Silbury Hill. This winter survival strategy involving what might be called ‘secondary necrophagy’  was a phase in the transition from hunter-gatherer to homesteader lifestyle. Stonehenge lent some ritual and solemnity to this unconventional strategy, helping to legitimise it and overcome inevitable feelings of revulsion. The uprights and pillars, a reprising in durable stone of Woodhenge, may have had a dual purpose – to overawe while serving a utilitarian purpose too, possibly to do with hanging and air- or smoke-curing of carcases and/or comminution to animal feed. The alignment was probably  intended to get a highly visible fix  on the day of the winter solstice – one that the entire community could see with their own eyes, signalling the permitted ‘open-season- when hitherto ‘unclean meat’ would be sanctified as ‘clean’ for the duration of the short  winter days and long nights while awaiting the return of Spring, light and new growth.


 Why was Stonehenge built ? (taken from the current Stonehenge visitor guide)

"This is the most difficult question for archaeology to answer. Stonehenge does not appear to have any obvious practical purposes. It was not lived in and could not have been defended, so it is thought there must have been a spiritual reason why Neolithic and Bronze-Age people put so much effort into building it.

These people were farmers, their survival dependent on the success of their crops and animals, and for them winter would have been a time of fear – dark months when days grew shorter and colder and when food supplies grew low. There would have been a longing for the return of the light and warmth that meant crops would grow and animals would feed and thrive. Light meant life. This may be a reason why Stonehenge was built and aligned so carefully to mark not the longest day of the year but the shortest. This, the winter solstice, was the turning of the year, after which light and life would return to the world."


The ideas that I, sciencebod, express here, dear reader, are a development of the ones you read above. In proposing the theory that follows (that may require a strong stomach) I freely acknowledge to have been influenced  at least in part by the suggestion that 'winter  survival' was at the top of Neolithic priorities, which may have overridden a lot of other considerations, aesthetic ones included. Our ancestors were first and foremost 'survivors'.

However, there was a separate and earlier departure point for my ideas. That was through thinking through what it might have been like to eke out a living, nay existence, as a Neolithic homesteader on Salisbury Plain some 4500 years ago - see my last but one post). Salisbury Plain may have had several attractions to Neolithic farmers, but by no stretch of the imagination can it be considered as a prime fertile area in Britain with its thin soil overlying a chalk base. Probably the main attraction was so much in what it was, but what it was not : it was not dense woodland with at best a few clearings, with little protection from enemies, human or wild life. But whereas the woods offered a year-round larder for the hunter-gatherer (indigenous UK mammals like deer, wild boar etc do not hibernate)  the safer more open Plain was a challenge for Neolithic farmers in the winter months with dwindling perishable food stores.

Here's a bare bones summary (no pun intended). I'll flesh out later ...

Main points

1     1.  Neolithic farmers on, or in the vicinity of Salisbury Plain and adjacent chalk uplands switched at the winter solstice (approx Dec 21st)  to a religiously-sanctioned diet - one that might be described uncompromisingly as  one based on ‘secondary cannibalism necrophagy'. However, the latter did not involve direct consumption of human flesh, but of domesticated livestock, notably pigs, that had been fed comminuted human flesh, probably well admixed with vegetable matter. Secondary cannibalism  necrophagy (aka anthropophagy) was a compromise between survival and aesthetics. The British are no strangers to the art of compromise...

2.       2. The nearby Durrington Walls site provides some corroborating evidence, with the discovery of “huge quantities of animal bone, mostly young pig, suggesting large scale feasting, particularly in mid-winter” (from Stonehenge visitor guide). See also this link for some disturbing detail on the cruel and wanton manner in which pigs were slaughtered  with arrows (almost as if the aim was to have the animal lose as much blood as possible while still alive, suggesting some dietary concerns re necrophagy), plus the fact that Durrington was used as temporary winter quarters for a sizeable number of folk seemingly engaged in a non-stop pig-fest.

"Animal bones and artifacts from Durrington Walls testify to ceremonial feasting. At Stonehenge such finds are scarce, implying separate ritual areas for the living and dead" (quote from Mike Pitts, Sheffield University)

3.       3. The resort to secondary cannibalism necrophagy was a survival aid that developed during the critical and often fraught transition over 2 or more millennia from hunter-gatherer to settled agrarian existence (fraught because initial crop yields were not sufficient to guarantee survival through the winter months).

      4. The function of Stonehenge,  and before that its predecessor Woodhenge and nearby sites, was to provide a sanctified site at which the recently deceased were given a solemn sending-off ceremony before the practical business of (partial) recycling began- the latter on  a temple-like site that lent dignity to the proceedings, and invested them with an aura of mystery and majesty.

5    5. The purpose of the initial ditch and bank (the latter made from excavated chalk) was to provide screening, with access restricted to one or two ‘causeway’ points.

6    6. The NE-SW alignment of the site entrance and diametrically-opposite opening was designed to pinpoint the winter solstice precisely,  signalling the approved date in the calendar when it became open-season for a winter-mode diet. The closed-season would have resumed perhaps in Spring, or even as late as the summer solstice (longest day, June 21st) when crops were ripening.

6.    7. For religious and practical reasons, or merely for showing respect to the departed, the recycling of mortal remains was not total.  The internal organs – heart etc- were first removed and given a separate burial marked by ceremony and ritual.


     'Butter-textured' material? Did anyone think of testing for fat? Fat can be remarkably-resistant to biodegradation (it's those hydrocarbon side chains in the fatty acids, especially the saturated ones without the double bonds)

 I I have suggested that was the purpose of SilburyHill – a place for disposal of those vital organs – which probably were seen as having the soul of the deceased, the remainder being seen as a mere husk -  once the body was stripped of it vital organs and their perceived spiritual significance.

8   8. The initial Stonehenge, and perhaps its Woodhenge predecessor too, had those mysterious bluestones, thought to have come all the way from the Preseli Hills in west Wales, either by human agency(!) or carried and then deposited by ancient glaciers. No practical explanation has been offered for those much-prized bluestones. Practical note: comminution with initial separation of flesh from bone would make heavy demands on pre-Bronze age flints which would quickly chip or lose their sharp edges. Reminder: the major, but not exclusive rock type, bluestone not being a recognized geological term, is dolerite with its feldspar inclusions, which is harder than granite. I suggest that some may have been used for superior “flints” (there being much bluestone debris aka 'debitage' on site, or maybe pillars of dolerite were used to keep a keen edge of the flints used to reduce the deceased to comminuted form.

9   9.   Some means of flesh preservation would have been needed.
     This image  accompanies an article that mentions Neolithic pig husbandry (in Spain) with references to the problem of keeping pigs fed in winter, and an interesting, perhaps relevant mention of "air-cured ham".

     The design of Woodhenge and Stonehenge with uprights and lintels may have been to create shelves and racks for hanging and drying in an age before salting/curing/smoking had been developed (?) Early precursors of the henges may even have been "Towers of Silence" relying on carrion feeding birds, as per Zoroastrian culture to provide what was considered an alternative to burial.

1   10.   Early forms of Stonehenge may have been used for human sacrifice (as per conventional explanations)  or even execution  of captured enemies, based on the finding of cremated remains of some 60 or so young adult males at the base of the Aubrey post holes, the latter being thought  to be an initial Mark 1 henge before the stones arrived. Indeed, the domesticated form of disposal/recycling of human remains may have evolved from an earlier military/punitive version.

      Secondary cannibalism  necrophagy was the 'smart technology' of 2500 BC. (It meant that you and your family did not starve, and you probably didn't catch horrible diseases either)
     More to come later. (As I say, a work in progress).

      Addendum 1: We tend to think  - or assume- that the transition from hunter-gather to settled agrarian existence was a smooth one. In fact it was probably anything but. As the first agrarians cleared trees to make a settlement, they made life more difficult for the hunters, and in so doing would have reduced their ability to supplement their agriculture with some hunting on the side. In other words the two life-styles came into conflict since each was encroaching on the territory of the other. So the transition was a difficult and risky one, especially in northern latitudes with winters and short days. So 'secondary necrophagy' may well have been an essential stage in the transition.One likes to think that natural mortality may have sufficed to provide enough of those unconventionally-fed pigs in winter, but there would have been no guarantees. One suspects that during lean periods, there may well have been pretexts created, no doubt backed by ad hoc  justification - to generate more turnover so to speak, which we would tend to pass off, 4500 years later, as religion-inspired "sacrifice" without perhaps appreciating an underlying utilitarian, i.e. survival  motive. Even in the modern world, we read of parts of the world where execution of criminals feeds a growing demand for transplant organs. Spare part surgery is a wonderful innovation, and not difficult to justify, but might the abuses of that innovation not provide a clue to the mindset that may have existed 4500 years ago ... a means can always be found to balance supply and demand...

     Addendum 2: From wiki, under the 'scavenger'  entry: 

I     In humans, necrophagy is taboo in most societies. There have been many instances in history, especially in war times, where necrophagy was a survival behavior.
     In the 1950s Louis Binford suggested that early humans were obtaining meat via scavenging, not hunting.[2] In 2010, Dennis Bramble and Daniel Lieberman also proposed that early humans were scavengers that used stone tools to harvest meat off carcasses and to open bones. They proposed that humans specialized in long-distance running to compete with other scavengers in reaching carcasses. It has been suggested that such an adaptation ensured a food supply that made large brains possible.
       The eating ating of human meat, a practice known as anthropophagy (and known more commonly as cannibalism), is extremely taboo in almost every culture.

     Addendum 3 : from National Geographic( for kids!) regarding that scary Neolithic Center Parc  aka Durrington Walls:

"    "The village was shown to be about 4,600 years old, the same age as Stonehenge and as old as the pyramids in Egypt. The village is less than 2 miles (3.2 kilometers) from Stonehenge and lies inside a massive manmade circular earthwork, or “henge,” known as Durrington Walls.

Remains found at the site included jewelry, stone arrowheads, tools made of deer antlers, and huge amounts of animal bones and broken pottery. These finds suggest Stone Age people went to the village at special times of the year “to feast and party,” says Mike Parker Pearson from Sheffield University in England.

He said many of the pig bones they found had been thrown away half-eaten. He also said the partygoers appeared to have shot some of the farm pigs with arrows, possibly as a kind of sport before barbecuing them.

      An ancient road which led from the village to a river called the Avon was also unearthed. Here, the experts think, people came after their parties to throw dead relatives in the water so the bodies would be washed downstream to Stonehenge."

      I'm starting to regret this project. Maybe I should have stuck with the Shroud of Turin.

    Colin Berry aka sciencebod

     Update: May 27th

      Have just discovered through googling that Silbury has previously been described as a tomb for the "souls" of Neolithic folk.  The link is to a 2007 article in the Mail. No mention of mortal remains though. As I say, I think the internal organs of folk were consigned to Silbury over a longish period (say a century), such that the mound grew like topsy - with no preconceived plan to create so dominant a feature on the landscape.

Final word here: I try not to overload this generalist science site with any one topic. For that reason future postings will now appear on my new site called "Sussing out Stonehenge - and Silbury Hill too".  

    Suggestions for new science-based topics always welcome, especially if topical.


syndry david said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
sciencebod said...

Update: Oregon farmer eaten by his pigs