The mystery of how the ancients travelled 160 miles across the British Isles from Wales to Wiltshire with the extremely heavy stones that we now know as Stonehenge may have finally been solved. Cattle were used as “animal engines” to help the Neolithic people carry around large objects. And while it is known that cattle were used as “engines”, this new information brings the dates back 2,000 years earlier than previously thought.
Earlier research indicated that the movement of glaciers brought the huge rocks to their current location, but now it seems as though it was actually cows that helped the ancients make the long journey. For approximately 8,000 years, cattle were used to carry heavy loads and this was proven by the discovery of foot bones in ancient cattle.
Archaeologists from the University College London found that the foot bones from Neolithic cattle from the Balkans showed specific wear patterns that could only come from being used as “animal engines”. The cattle were used to haul wood to help create settlements; therefore, it’s very possible that they were also used to carry Stonehenge’s large rocks – which weighed several tons each – to the location where the monument resides to this very day.
Dr. Jane Gaastra, who is the lead author in a study published in Antiquity about this discovery, said, “We have been able to provide the first conclusive evidence that farmers were using cattle for ‘traction’ almost 2,000 years earlier than the previous consensus date. There has only been one other foot sample from the Neolithic period found in Syria but this was inconclusive. The part of the Balkans where we found the bones was heavy forested in the Neolithic period, so chopping trees to create settlements would have required a lot of man power. Cattle would therefore have been a vital asset helping to transport items such as timber for housing.”
The study, which was conducted in the central and western Balkans, indicated that the earliest farmers from Europe used cattle for dairy and meat, but also as a type of power engine. And this happened two thousand years earlier than what they had initially thought.
Dr. Marc Vander Linden, who is the co-author of the study, 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.”
Researchers studied twelve cattle foot bone samples that came from males and females from eleven Neolithic sites in the central and western Balkans between the years 6,000 and 4,500 BC. They also plan to conduct more studies across Europe in order to determine whether this form of traction happened only in a few Neolithic groups or if it was a popular practice across the continent.
Stonehenge is an incredible and mysterious site, and now that new information has been discovered suggesting that cows helped in the process of constructing the monument, that makes it even more fascinating.