New evidence from Stonehenge suggests that travelers made the journey from what is now the Vale of York (250 miles away) with their "pet" dog thousands of years before the stone monument was even built.
Carbon dating and chemical analysis of a dog's tooth found at Blick Mead (part of the wider Stonehenge complex) suggest that the dog was born near York. This is based on oxygen isotopic analysis by scientists at Durham University which shows that the dog drank Yorkshire water when it was a puppy. It made the journey from there to Wiltshire some 7000 years ago. Additional findings suggest that people were eating huge bovine animals, known as aurochs (2 meters tall at the shoulder), red deer, boar, salmon, trout, and hazelnuts. The natural spring at Blick Mead and the relative close River Avon would have acted as a major draw and channel for wildlife and people at the time as the icecaps receded, although the river was 60 meters across during the Mesolithic, according to geological estimates, and much wilder.
Archaeologists believe Stonehenge was constructed some time between 3000 and 2000 BC. The circular earth bank and ditch that surround it have been dated to ca. 3100 BC while radiocarbon dating suggests that the first "bluestones" were not raised until as late as 2400 to 2200 BC, although they may have been at the site as early as 3000 BC.
So, what's going on? The site of Stonehenge had some kind of significance to people even before it was built, which is why the people who built it put those stones there...presumably. But, what was that significance and how had it been sustained in prehistoric times for thousands of years before people had maps or even writing to share accurate stories about specific places hundreds of miles away? David Jacques of the University of Buckingham has been exploring the Stonehenge landscape of the Mesolithic period (8500 to 4000 BC) and since 2005 has been Project Director of the Blick Mead archaeological site. He his colleagues wonder whether this site, because of its geography and geology at a dramatically wild period of prehistory, became a kind of cultural or social hub for prehistoric people even before the stone circle was built and perhaps the stone circle was built because the site had such a long history.
When Jacques first revealed the new insights to an audience at Gresham College, he pointed out that the Durham team was confident that the oxygen isotopes in the dog tooth (left fourth premolar) were from an area well north and east of Wiltshire and perhaps as far as the Vale of York. The geology of Britain shows a marked distinction between isotope ratios in the south west to those in the north and into Scotland, although the boundaries are broad.
The crucial point, perhaps, is that the water in the spring at Blick Mead stays at a relatively constant 10 to 14 degrees Celsius all year round even when there is ice and snow on the ground and the air temperature is -8 degrees Celsius. There are extended growing seasons at this site and the bluff to the southwest protects it from the prevailing wind. The conditions would certainly attract large herbivores especially in the winter months to what is essentially a life-sustaining area of microclimate. If people ventured here, they would find plenty of meat as well as wood and easily accessible flint for making tools.
Intriguingly, a fairly uncommon alga, Hildenbrandia rivularis, that grows in the spring water forms a crust on chunks of flint turning them bright pink. A property that would be most attractive to curious people seeking ways to add color to their lives and perhaps tribal ritualism. Indeed, the crust could well have been used as a dye, but it was teenagers taken to see the artifacts who pointed out that some of the tiniest, seemingly impractical, albeit pink, flint tools may well have been used for tattooing skin. Such an insight might never have come from a professor or museum curator but seemed obvious to culturally savvy youths.
Of course, in addition to this finding being important in terms of prehistoric human culture, the earliest known journey in Britain and the possibility of pink flint tattoos, it also reveals that dogs have been our best friends for a long, long time. The canine tooth found at Blick Mead is thought to be from a dog resembling an Alsation (or German shepherd dog) that shared its human companions' taste for aurach, salmon and trout, but maybe not the hazelnuts.
David Bradley blogs at Sciencebase Science Blog and tweets @sciencebase, he is author of the popular science book "Deceived Wisdom".