for National Geographic News
Prehistoric cattle remains found close to Stonehenge suggest that partying pilgrims brought the animals from afar, scientists report.
The remains support a theory that the megalithic monument near Salisbury, in southern England, drew ancient peoples from distant regions to celebrate important feast ceremonies. And the feasts, it seems, were movable.
Cattle slaughtered during ritual festivities at the site may have come from as far away as Wales, Jane Evans of the United Kingdom's Natural Environment Research Council announced this week at the British Association Festival of Science in Liverpool.
The discovery is based on 4,500-year-old cattle teeth and bones recently unearthed at a late Stone Age village at Durrington Walls (learn more), less than two miles (three kilometers) from the famous stone circle.
"We are seeing physical evidence of the movement of populations into the [Stonehenge] area for the feasting," said Evans, a member of the research team.
(See Stonehenge photos from National Geographic magazine.)
Researchers analyzed isotopes, or different varieties, of atoms of the chemical element strontium that was preserved in the animals' tooth enamel. These atoms provide a chemical insight into the geology of the region where the animal lived.
The findings indicate all but one of the cattle studied were raised beyond the chalky, limestone-rich lands that surround Stonehenge and define much of southern England, Evans said.
And teeth samples from two cattle suggest they came from outside England altogether.
"These animals were grazing on soils that developed on relatively old rocks," Evans said, adding that the nearest locations where such rocks are found are Wales and Scotland.
Wales is the likelier of the two, Evans said, because it is closer to Stonehenge and has other archaeological connections. For instance, the Stonehenge monument includes bluestones that were transported from southwest Wales.
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