More than 4000 years ago, people erected monumental circles of stones or wood all over southern England. Stonehenge is the most famous, but many other so-called “henges” were also built between 2800 and 2400 B.C.E. Nearby trash pits full of pig bones suggest they once hosted enormous feasts. But who was coming to these gatherings?
The pigs have now helped solve that mystery. Researchers studied the bones of 131 pigs from four henge sites in southern England, notably Durrington Walls, a wooden henge (pictured) built a mere 3 kilometers from Stonehenge, and Marden Henge, the largest of these monuments yet discovered. When the pigs were alive, their bones absorbed chemicals from their food and water, preserving a unique signature of each pig’s local environment and diet. The researchers measured the isotope ratios of five of these chemicals: strontium, oxygen, sulfur, carbon, and nitrogen.
Nearly no two pigs had the same isotope signature, the team reports today in Science Advances. That suggests they were brought to the henges from many different places rather than being raised locally for feasts. In fact, their isotope signatures match the environments in every corner of England, Scotland, and even Ireland. And that means the people attending the feasts—and contributing their pigs—likely came from as far away as western Wales, northeastern England, and even Scotland. It seems the henges have been tourist hot spots for millennia.