There’s much we don’t know about the Neolithic culture that built Stonehenge. But there’s one thing archaeologists can say for certain: they certainly feasted on pork. A new study suggests their pig roasts weren’t just neighborhood events, either—chemical evidence in the pig bones make a case that these epic barbeques forged alliances and brought together people from across the British Isles.
While archaeological digs at English ceremonial sites from the late Neolithic period (around 2800 to 2400 B.C.) are littered with bones, researchers had previously only performed strontium isotope analysis to find out what parts of Britain human remains and cattle found at these sites came from. No one had analyzed the pig bones until recently.
To conduct their research, a team of U.K. scholars examined the remains of pigs from four archaeological sites— Durrington Walls, Marden, Mount Pleasant and the West Kennet Palisade Enclosures—located near the monuments of Stonehenge and Avebury where these feasts took place. Looking at the unique ratios of isotopes in the bones, which serve as a chemical fingerprint of the place where the animals were raised, the researchers were able to determine how far each animal traveled to the feasting grounds. The analysis reveals that people herded their porkers from as far away as West Wales, Scotland and the North East of England. Most came from at least 30 miles away and some traveled upwards of to 350 miles. The research appears in the journal Science Advances.
The big melting pot of pork suggested something fascinating—that these feasts were pan-Britain occasions. “These gatherings could be seen as the first united cultural events of our island, with people from all corners of Britain descending on the areas around Stonehenge to feast on food that had been specially reared and transported from their homes,” Richard Madgwick of Cardiff University, lead author of the paper, says in a press release.
While the pigs were all coming from various places, the carbon isotope signature suggests they were all eating the same thing. That means that these ancient people likely didn’t feed their pigs on food scraps from households, as Kristin Romey at National Geographic reports. Instead, they were likely herding pigs, setting them loose to munch on acorns and other wild food in the forest.
Historian Mark Essig, author of Lesser Beasts: A Snout to Tail History of the Humble Pig, tells Romey that contrary to modern belief, pigs can, in fact, be herded. And he points out that the Stonehenge-era pigs wouldn’t have been the portly pink porkers we’re used to that rely on our corncobs and bread crusts. Instead, they were more like wild boars, capable of making long journeys under their own power and foraging for their own food.
As George Dvorsky at Gizmodo reports, it’s possible that the animals were slaughtered before the journey to the feasting grounds, but the authors argue that because of the large numbers of skulls and trotters found, it’s unlikely they would have been carried on such a long journey.
The big question is why people would have brought their own meat from so far away when they probably could have bought or traded for pigs closer to the feasting sites. It’s possible that bring-your-own-pig nature of the festivities was a requirement of the rituals.
“Arguably the most startling finding is the efforts that participants invested in contributing pigs that they themselves had raised,” Madgwick says in the release. That they did so is telling. “This suggests that prescribed contributions were required and that rules dictated that offered pigs must be raised by the feasting participants, accompanying them on their journey, rather than being acquired locally," he says.
Meat is not the only thing the Neolithic culture that built Stonehenge brought from absurd distances. Another recent study suggests they dragged 2- to 4-ton slabs of bluestone 180 miles from quarry sits in Wales to build the giant stone monument.