New research published in the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution (May 2019) suggests that the people who built the hunebeds and Stonehenge were part of a westward migration of Neolithic people from Anatolia in modern Turkey.
Researchers compared DNA extracted from Neolithic human remains found across Britain with that of people alive at the same time in Europe. The migration to Britain was just one part of a general, massive expansion of people out of Anatolia around 6,000BC. These people introduced farming to Europe and replaced the earlier hunter-gatherers.
The early migrants did not all follow the same route from Anatolia. One group followed the river Danube up into Central Europe before spreading westward into Germany and Holland. Another group travelled west across the Mediterranean to Iberia (modern Spain and Portugal) before winding their way north through today’s France and arriving in Britain around 4,000 BC. Analysis of the DNA of these early farmers in Britain shows that they most closely resembled Neolithic people from Iberia.
DNA also confirms that the new migrants seem to have replaced the existing population of hunter-gatherers, rather than mixing with them to any degree. “We don’t find any detectable evidence at all for local British western hunter-gatherer ancestry in the Neolithic farmers after they arrive,” said co-author Dr Tom Booth, a specialist in ancient DNA from the Natural History Museum in London. “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.”
The Neolithic farmers probably had to adapt their practices to different climatic conditions as they moved across Europe. By the time they reached Britain they were already experienced in new techniques and well-prepared for growing crops in a north-west European climate.
The Neolithic migrants also appear to have introduced the tradition of building monuments using large stones known as megaliths. Many examples can be found throughout Spain and France as well as in Britain, Germany and the Netherlands. Descriptions of some of these can be found in articles elsewhere on this website by searching the interactive maps.
Towards the end of the Neolithic, in about 2,450BC, the descendants of these first farmers were themselves almost entirely replaced when a new population – called the Bell Beaker people – migrated from mainland Europe to Britain.
Text Alun Harvey