Archaeologists have discovered one of Europe’s largest Neolithic stone complexes near the town of Huelva in southwestern Spain, ahead of plans to grow avocados there.
The oldest standing stones—called “menhirs” in many parts of Europe, possibly from the Celtic word for “stone”—may be up to 7,500 years old, and the entire complex consists of thousands of individual stones spread over 1,500 acres (600 hectares) on the sides and top of a small hill.
Some of the largest stones stand alone, but others were placed to form tombs, mounds, stone circles, enclosures and linear rows. The variety of structures is part of the puzzle of the site.
“This pattern is not common in the Iberian Peninsula and is truly unique,” said José Antonio Linares, a geoarchaeologist at the University of Huelva and lead author of a new study published in the June issue of history papers (opens in new tab).
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The place known as La Torre-La Janera was opened in 2018, but archaeologists I only recently learned about the full extent of the Neolithic or Neolithic complex, Antonio Linares Catella told Live Science in an email.
It now appears that the functions of Neolithic monuments were as varied as their construction. “Territorial, ritual, astronomical, funerary … overall it represents a mega-site of the recent prehistory of southern Iberia,” he said. It was “a megalithic shrine of veneration, worship and memory to the ancestors of long ago”.
The landowner, a farmer, wanted to establish an avocado plantation at the site, near the border with Portugal about 50 miles (80 kilometers) northwest of Huelva, Linares said.
But there were local rumors that menhirs once stood on the hill, so it wasn’t a complete surprise when the initial archaeological survey in 2018 confirmed that there were several standing stones there. A full survey in 2020 and 2021 revealed the importance of the site, and the universities of Huelva and Alcalá are now funding an archaeological survey until at least 2026, he said.
Neolithic people built the complex on a prominent hill, not far from the mouth of the Guadiana River and the Atlantic Ocean, with good visibility over the surrounding territory.
So far, archaeologists have found more than 520 standing stones at the site, and some of the earliest may have been erected as early as the second half of the sixth millennium BC, or about 7,500 years ago, while the latest Neolithic structures were built in the second millennium BC, or between 3,000 and 4,000 years ago, he said.
Several of the standing stones created prominent covered tombs known as “dolmens,” while others formed coffin-shaped structures known as “cists,” which archaeologists expect were used to bury the remains of the dead.
But no human remains have yet been verified at the site. “We haven’t done extensive excavations of the tombs,” Linares said; and while such structures must have contained skeletal remains at some point, the bones may not have been preserved in the acidic soil.
Neolithic people and megaliths
Standing stones and other Neolithic monuments – known as “megaliths”, from the ancient Greek words for “giant stone” – abound across Europe, from Sweden to the Mediterranean. Many megalithic sites have also been found in Spain, including in the area near La Torre-La Janera.
Some of the most famous, such as Stonehenge, are located in Britain, but even larger “megalithic” structures are found elsewhere – such as Carnac in the French region of Brittany, where there are more than 10,000 menhirs arranged in rows.
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The exact dates of such megalithic structures can be difficult to ascertain, as the rock itself cannot be reliably dated. But circumstantial evidence of other materials buried at the same sites suggests that most of them date from the Neolithic period of about 6,500 years ago, according to Smithsonian Magazine (opens in new tab) — which would make the oldest standing stones at La Torre-La Janera older than most.
Archaeologists suspect that the practice of building megalithic monuments spread to Europe during the Neolithic with successive waves of settlers, perhaps from the Middle East, who appear to have assimilated local hunter-gatherer peoples, according to a 2003 study in the journal Annual Review of Anthropology (opens in new tab).
Many megaliths seem to be aligned with certain astronomical events, such as mid winter sunrise and it looks like many of those in the La Torre-La Janera complex may be as well.
Covered tombs or dolmens “are generally oriented towards the solstice and equinoxesbut there are also solar orientations in the alignments [rows of stones] and the cromlechs [circles of stones]” project leader Primitiva Bueno Ramírez, a professor of prehistory at the University of Alcalá near Madrid and co-author of the new study, told Live Science.
She emphasized that so far only the surface of the La Torre-La Janera site has been explored and archaeologists expect to find much more there.
One clue that more stones are yet to be found is the “magnificent preservation” of the structures, which could help scientists reconstruct information about the “occupations, chronologies, uses and symbolism of these monuments,” she told Live Science in email.
Originally published on Live Science.