The new findings, which have yet to be published, are based on the work of Sarah Viner, a graduate student who was working under the supervision of animal archaeologist Umberto Albarella at Britain's University of Sheffield.
The new chemical analysis wasn't precise enough to pinpoint the prehistoric cattle's exact origins, but the results prove that people were taking their livestock to Stonehenge from elsewhere in Britain, Albarella said.
"People were gathering from quite a large region," he said.
Furthermore, cattle bones excavated at the ancient settlement revealed no evidence of newborn calves. "If you have a site where animals were actually reared, you will almost certainly find a number of newborn casualties, but we are not finding that at all," Albarella said.
"So I'm pretty confident this is a consumer site," he added. "It is a site with a special purpose—where people are gathering, probably for feasting and eating an awful lot of meat."
Albarella is one of a large team of experts working on the Stonehenge Riverside Project, a continuing archaeological investigation led by Mike Parker Pearson, also from the University of Sheffield.
Parker Pearson, who has received funding from the National Geographic Society's Committee for Research and Exploration, proposes that Stonehenge and Durrington Walls were intimately connected. (The National Geographic Society owns National Geographic News.)
The archaeologist said the two sites had corresponding standing circles—one of stone, and one of timber—that symbolized the realms of the living and the dead to ancestor-worshipping ancient Britons.
(Related story: "Stonehenge Was Cemetery First and Foremost, Study Says" [May 29, 2008])
The hundreds of prehistoric dwellings recently discovered at Durrington are thought to represent a seasonal village that accommodated pagan pilgrims who came to celebrate the winter and summer solstices.
Prehistoric garbage dumps, or middens, were filled with evidence of Stone Age partying, such as pig and cattle bones and broken pottery.
Further study of livestock remains may support a new idea that pilgrims from different regions had their own quarters within the village.
It appears that the types of pottery differ in different areas of the site, based on fragments studied so far, Albarella said.
"It's a hypothesis which needs to be tested," he added. "We may be able to associate cattle [remains] coming from different areas of the site with, perhaps, different regions of origin."
Stonehenge researchers have turned to livestock as a proxy for studying the movement of people because few human teeth have been found in the area.
Human remains unearthed at the monument itself consist of cremation burials, and during cremation, teeth tend to explode, Albarella observed.
"We do need teeth, because it's the enamel in the teeth that preserve the [isotope] signal," said team member Evans.
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