In many ways, stone age people are a mystery to us. We know so little about them. However, recent investigations into the megaliths built by our ancestors have revealed some interesting nuggets about Europe’s early farmers.
Megaliths – like those huge standing stones at Stonehenge or the passage tomb at Newgrange – are a bit of a puzzle to us. Neolithic (later stone age) European people built them, mostly along Atlantic coastal areas. Many of these ancient structures resemble each other. For instance, their builders arranged standing stones in circles or rows, and constructed east or southeast-facing dolmens and passage tombs to bury their dead.
Thousands of megaliths were built in Scandinavia, Northern mainland Europe, France, Ireland, Britain, Scotland, the Iberian Peninsula, Italy and even the Mediterranean Islands. Who built them, and why? Why is it that similar structures appear in so many parts of Europe? And what can we learn from them about life in the stone age?
A joint Swedish and British research team has uncovered an important clue about stone age life. It seems that megaliths were actually family graves. The researchers analysed DNA obtained from the remains of 24 people buried at five locations – two in Co. Sligo (Primrose Grange and Carrowmore), two on the Scottish Orkney Islands and one in Sweden.
The DNA analysis showed that the people buried at each location were close family members. The two Irish megaliths actually contained the remains of people from the same family, although this isn’t too surprising as they were only a few miles apart. According to the researchers, these findings suggest that megaliths were the burial places of a community’s most important family. So, it would seem that early farming society had some kind of class structure or hierarchy of importance.
The researchers also discovered more males than females buried in the megaliths. Based on this, they believe the society of the day was a patriarchal one with descent traced down through the male side of the family. Interestingly, the researchers think this type of arrangement, where there was competition between males to be top dog, could explain the mysterious decline in male population size during the Neolithic period.
Links Between Communities
A second recent piece of research analysed 2,400 carbon-dated samples from European megaliths. It revealed clues about the spread of megaliths across Europe and the developing belief systems of the people who built them.
Due to similarities in European megaliths, it was assumed at one time that they spread from a single starting place across the continent. However, when carbon dating began, it didn’t support this single origin theory. So since the 1970s, the view among historians has been that megaliths developed independently in different regions.
Doesn’t that strike you as a huge coincidence though? Now, it seems like finally science has caught up with common sense. The recent study suggests that megaliths originated in Northern France around 4,500 BCE. They spread first along the French Atlantic coast, into the Mediterranean and the Iberian Peninsula. From about 3,500 BCE they spread along the Atlantic coast of the Iberian Peninsula and into Britain, Scotland and Ireland. Following this expansion, they spread as far as Scandinavia and North Germany.
The researcher concludes that the “megalithic movements must have been powerful to spread with such rapidity” and that we should give more credit to Neolithic people for their maritime skills, as well as for their knowledge and technology.