DNA analysis sheds new light on Stonehenge's Mediterranean origins

Britons celebrate the Winter Solstice at Stonehenge
(Image credit: Matt Cardy/Getty Images)

Stonehenge still has its mysteries, but a new study offers up some intriguing information on the people who presumably built the stone circle in southwest Britain starting in about 3000 BC. The people who erected the mysterious stone monument descended from Neolithic farmers who brought agriculture to Britain in about 4000 BC, after traveling across the Mediterranean to the Iberian peninsula from Anatolia (modern-day Turkey and Greece) in about 6000 BC, researchers in London report in the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution.

Anatolian migrants brought agriculture to all of Western Europe, populated before then by small groups of hunter-gatherers, but two things set the British settlers apart, the researchers found.

First, unlike the majority of Neolithic farmers who traveled to Central and Western Europe along the Danube, the Neolithic Britons traveled across the Mediterranean and first settled in modern-day Spain and Portugal. Second, they didn't appear to mix with the darker-skin hunter-gatherers. "We don't find any detectable evidence at all for the local British western hunter-gatherer ancestry in the Neolithic farmers after they arrive," Tom Booth, a specialist in ancient DNA from London's Natural History Museum and co-author of the study, tells BBC News. "That doesn't mean they don't mix at all, it just means that maybe their population sizes were too small to have left any kind of genetic legacy."

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"In addition to farming, the Neolithic migrants to Britain appear to have introduced the tradition of building monuments using large stones known as megaliths," BBC News reports. "Stonehenge in Wiltshire was part of this tradition," though there's evidence of megalithic structures along Europe's Atlantic coast. But history didn't end with the Anatolian immigrants. In about 2450 BC, the shrinking population of Neolithic farmers was almost entirely replace by a new group, the Bell Beaker people, from mainland Europe, the researchers found.

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