Europe’s ancient megaliths originated in France, new study suggests

Dolmen de las Ruines, Catalonia. 📷 Bettina Schulz Paulsson

Stonehenge is just one of around 35,000 megalithic stone monuments in Europe. Now, a new study suggests that the first appeared in France around 6,500 years ago, and spread along the Atlantic Coast.

Archaeologists have debated the origins of Europe’s ancient stone monuments for over 100 years. Ranging from single standing stones, to covered stone tombs called dolmens, one theory was that they came from the Near East, others suggested that they were independently ‘invented’ in five or six times in different places. The major hurdle has been sifting through all the archaeological data to find reliable dating evidence for the monuments that could help answer the question.

Archaeologist Bettina Schulz Paulsson decided to take on the challenge. Her results, which have just been published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, found that the earliest ones were built in northwestern France around 6500 years ago, and spread to coastal sites in France, Spain and Portugal within 200 to 300 years.

The process has taken her 10 years, combing archaeological reports in 11 languages, establishing the reliability of the radiocarbon dates, and then using Bayesian statistics to finish up her analysis.

In the end, she whittled the results down to 2,410 sites which could be reliably dated. Since stone monuments can be notoriously difficult to date, the evidence she used used mostly came from human remains buried within the sites.

The very earliest dates she found came from megaliths built in northwestern France, including the famous Carnac stones from around 4700 BC, when the region was inhabited by hunter-gatherers. Engravings on standing stones from the region depict sperm whales and other sea life, which suggests the builders may also have been mariners.

Over the next few thousand years, stone monuments start to appear all over Europe in several distinct phases, along coastal sites, and then further inland. Stonehenge is thought to have been built around 2400 B.C., but other megaliths in the British Isles go back to about 4000 B.C.

She also suggests that the evidence may indicate that the concept spread along sea routes, and that sea faring technology may have been more advanced than we think.

Bettina also points out that north western France only region where megalithic structures are preceded by enormous earthen monuments dating to around 5000 BC, which could feasibly be the inspiration for the stone ones which emerged a little later.

Archaeologist Mike Parker Pearson said in Science Mag that while the study does a good job establishing that the first builders were in north western France, it doesn’t rule out the possibility of later cultures inventing them too.

It looks like the century-old debate will continue, but for monument lovers everywhere, this is a landmark piece of research (literally!), and Bettina’s paper is well worth a read.

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Written by Maiya Pina-Dacier

Head of Community at DigVentures, Maiya digs with a trowel in one hand, and a Twitter feed in the other. She reports on all our discoveries live from the trenches, and keeps our Site Hut full of the latest archaeology news. Got a story? Just drop her a line...

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