Stonehenge in a moo light: Was it built by cow power?
Neolithic farmers had mastered animal traction well before the wheel came along, study suggests
The mystery of how Stonehenge’s bluestones were transported 260km from Wales to Wiltshire has puzzled archaeologists for generations.
Some experts say glaciers picked up and deposited the huge rocks in the last ice age, while others have suggested the stones were dragged on rollers or sleds by manpower.
Yet new research may point to a far simpler explanation – that cattle were used to shift the massive cargo.
Archaeologists at University College London have found that cattle were being used as engines to pull heavy loads as early as 6,000BC.
In a new study, published in Antiquity, archaeologists discovered that the bones in the feet of Neolithic cattle in the Balkans demonstrated distinctive wear patterns, indicating they were being used for traction, almost 2,000 years earlier than previously thought.
It means that Neolithic farmers had already been using cattle to move loads for thousands of years before Stonehenge was constructed 5,000 years ago.
Lead author Dr Jane Gaastra, of UCL Archaeology, said: “Our current identification of systematic traction at around 6000BC makes it even more likely that there would have been traction animals available for labour during the construction of Stonehenge.
“So, yes, that would certainly be a good avenue for more research.
“The part of the Balkans where we found the bones was heavily forested in the Neolithic period, so chopping trees to create settlements would have required a lot of manpower. Cattle would therefore have been a vital asset helping to transport items such timber for housing.”
The study was conducted in the central and western Balkans and shows that the earliest European farmers were not simply using cattle as a source of meat or dairy products, but also as a source of propulsion.
Previous research suggested that animals were not used for traction until much later with the invention of the plough and the cart, but there was no evidence for either at Stonehenge so it was believed animals were not used to move the stones.
Co-author Dr Marc Vander Linden, formerly of UCL Archaeology, now at University of Cambridge, said: “Until now it has generally been considered that traction only emerged by the 5th and 4th millennium BC, parallel to the introduction of the plough and the wheel, but our study demonstrates that this is not the case.
“We reveal that when the wheel and the plough became available farmers were already experienced in using cattle for traction, and this could have facilitated the spread of these innovations.
“The bluestones were moved in the second half of the 3rd millennium BC, a period for which cattle traction was already established. From this point of view our study only shows that cattle traction was practised by early European farmers much before what was generally considered.
“Frankly, there is no reason to think that it was not used.”
The researchers investigated 12 cattle-foot bone samples, from both male and female cattle, from 11 Neolithic sites in the central and western Balkans, modern-day Croatia, Serbia, Romania and Bosnia-Herzegovina, spanning from 6,000 to 4,500BC.
They found that the foot bones of animals had extra growth on the inner side, the area that takes most of the load.
Stonehenge expert, Professor Mike Parker Pearson of UCL added: “There’s no evidence that the Stonehenge cattle were used for traction. But we do have a cattle jaw at Stonehenge from the same date as the bluestones’ arrival around 3,000BC, which is from an elderly cow that grew up on geology compatible with that of west Wales.”
– © The Daily Telegraph