Stonehenge has long been known as the site of burial rites from the mysterious days of prehistory, but it turns out that this famed location on Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire, England, still has secrets to reveal about its deep past. About 5,000 years before the ancient henge was built, the area was apparently a great spot for deer and wild boar hunting.
This has been revealed thanks to a recent discovery made by archeologists who have excavated six of 400 identified hunting pits near Stonehenge.
Parker Pearson, an archaeology professor at the University of Sheffield in England and head of the Stonehenge Riverside Archaeological Project, called Stonehenge a cremation burial site that was very much a “domain of the dead.” But “domain of the dead” had an entirely different meaning for the ancient humans who roamed the landscape during the early Mesolithic period after the last Ice Age (15,000 to 5,000 BCE).
Hunting pits, or trapping pits, are one of the oldest methods for killing big game. They’re also known as pitfalls. The concept is not very sophisticated, but they are definitely effective and a pretty simple yet ingenious way to take down large game animals without using arrows or spears and without having to run them down or use dogs.
The pits near the Stonehenge site were uncovered by a team of researchers from the University of Birmingham and Ghent University and date from between 8,200 BCE and 7,800 BCE, meaning they could be up to 10,000 years old.
Researchers performed an electromagnetic induction survey to locate the pits, a process that uses the electrical conductivity of soil to find materials underground.
Their survey identified more than 400 potential large pits, each over 8 feet in diameter, and six were excavated during the course of the project. One of the pits was 13 feet wide and 6.5 feet deep, dates to the Mesolithic period, and stands as the largest of its kind in northwest Europe.
The size and shape of this particular pit led researchers to believe that it was used for aurochs, red deer, and wild boar hunting.
“The discovery of the largest known Early Mesolithic pit in north-west [sic] Europe shows that this was a special place for hunter-gatherer communities thousands of years before the first stones were erected,” he said.
Ancient hunters would typically dig their pits as large as 13-by-23 feet and at least 6 feet deep. The pits were then camouflaged with branches and leaves. Animals were either chased or simply fell into them and were unable to scramble out because of the steep sides. The animals could then be dispatched, hauled out, and used.
Some pits also had a series of branches strung across the bottom to trap the long legs of elk or reindeer once they fell in. Since this kind of hunting is most effective when a large herd of animals runs through a field of pits, hunters focused on corralling herds and would sometimes dig dozens of pits across a large area to increase their odds of killing an animal.
In the New World, hunting pits are pretty similar conceptually to the buffalo or game jumps that indigenous people used across the North American plains up until the 1700s. When it comes to the legality of pit trapping in the US today, especially for big game, it’s unlikely that you’ll find a state that will allow the practice.
That being said, there are state-level regulations for primitive hunting and trapping techniques for small game and furbearers on the books today. In spite of its legal standing, this primitive hunting or trapping method is still an effective survival skill and can be used to effectively take game in a subsistence hunting situation.