Found! Largest prehistoric structure in UK

Mapped: A ring of deep shafts discovered near Stonehenge. © PA

Were we happier in the Stone Age? 4,500 years ago, a thriving culture in Neolithic Britain built vast structures with only stone tools. Experts think we have been going downhill ever since.

A lost world lies buried beneath the bucolic English countryside. Yesterday, archaeologists announced an astonishing discovery less than two miles from Stonehenge.

The circle of up to 30 deep shafts is the “largest prehistoric structure” in Britain. Each pit is 10-metres wide and five-metres deep, an incredible achievement for Neolithic people with only stone, wood, and bone tools at their disposal.

Archaeologist Vincent Gaffney says the find “shows an even more complex society than we could ever imagine” flourishing 4,500 years ago. The precision and planning required to build the site shows people with a counting system and a sophisticated religious and social life, long before the ancient Egyptians built the pyramids.

Though we know relatively little about the people who dug these shafts and built Stonehenge – because, unlike the ancient Egyptians, they wrote nothing down – some experts believe Stone Age people were much happier than we are today.

We are normally taught that history has been a long march of progress from savagery to civilisation. Life expectancy in the Neolithic period was below 35 and, without modern medicine and technology, disease and famine were an inevitable part of life. If sickness and starvation didn’t kill you, a wild animal or a hostile tribe might. Life was short, scary, and dangerous.

Today, we can expect to live well into your seventies and beyond. We are inoculated against most infectious diseases and we are unlikely ever to experience starvation. War and violence are in decline, and we have hunted most dangerous animals to extinction.

But historian Yuval Noah Harari believes we are less happy.

He argues that we have inherited a cave-dwelling brain that is better suited to hunting mammoths than it is to scrolling through Instagram. Happiness is a biochemical reward for achieving goals. Hunter-gathers’s main goal was to stay alive: so as long as they were finding food, they were feeling great.

It is much more difficult to stay happy in the modern world, where most of our basic needs are taken care of and we often live with very little human interaction. By contrast, our ancestors relied on close-knit relationships to survive cold winters, long journeys, and dangerous hunting expeditions.

Our more advanced goals – love, wealth, and success – should make us happy. But social scientists warn happiness is based on expectations. News and social media allow us to compare our lives to all the world’s celebrities. Compared to them, we will always feel dissatisfied.

Our Neolithic ancestors compared themselves to 150 other people, who were very much alike, and they would have been fairly happy with the comparison.

So, were we happier in the Stone Age?

Paradise lost?

Yes. We lived in small communities and formed strong intimate friendships in order to stay alive. In the modern age, we often feel overwhelmed by choice, uncertainty, and expectations. Neolithic life may have been dangerous and precarious, but this forced our ancestors to live for the moment, with richer and happier lives.

No. Life was nasty, brutish, and short. Modern society frees us from the fear of war and famine. And incredible advances in technology and entertainment mean our lives are crammed full of exciting, interesting, and inspiring possibilities. By comparison, Stone Age lives were monotonous, predictable, and boring.

You Decide

  1. Would you be happy living in the Stone Age?
  2. Does technology make us happier?

Activities

  1. Draw a cave painting that shows what happiness means to you.
  2. You are doing a cultural exchange with a time-traveller from the Stone Age. Write them a helpful introduction to staying safe and happy in 2020.

Some People Say...

“We do not become satisfied by leading a peaceful and prosperous existence. Rather, we become satisfied when reality matches our expectations. The bad news is that as conditions improve, expectations balloon.”

Yuval Noah Harari, Israeli historian

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
It is generally agreed that the Neolithic Revolution was one of the most significant developments in human civilisation. This transition from hunter-gathering to settled agriculture began in the Middle East 12,000 years ago, and reached Britain around 6,000 years later. By gathering in larger settlements and coming to rely on farming the land, Neolithic people fundamentally changed their way of life. Our cities and complex hierarchical societies are the direct consequence of this change.
What do we not know?
One main area of debate is around whether the agricultural revolution at the end of the Stone Age marked the beginning or the end of human happiness. The traditional view is that happiness has increased with the advance of technology, art, culture, and civilisation. Others take a much more pessimistic position. Farming meant an onerous and unhappy life for the majority, whilst small powerful elites got richer, exploited their subjects, and built bigger cities, states, and empires.

Word Watch

Bucolic
The pleasant aspects of the countryside and country life.
Stonehenge
Despite its popularity with modern-day pagans, it was built between 3000BC-2000BC, long before the era of Celtic druids. The most fascinating mystery surrounding the henge is how these giant stones were brought 150 miles from southwest Wales to Salisbury Plain before the invention of the wheel.
Neolithic
The New Stone Age was the last period before the development of bronze and iron technology. During this period, humans began to settle in tribes, farm the land, and domesticate animals.
Pyramids
The Great Pyramid of Giza, constructed between 2580BC-2560BC is the only one of the Seven Wonders of the ancient World still standing and, at 146.5 metres, was the tallest man-made structure for over 3,800 years.
Wrote
Writing developed in the Bronze Age (3000BC-1200BC) to help in the trading of agricultural goods and taxation.
Progress
The idea that history is the gradual improvement of society developed during the European Enlightenment, beginning in the 17th Century.
Inoculated
Vaccinated.
War and violence
This is a highly contested subject. Steven Pinker’s landmark 2011 book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, argued the world has never been so peaceful. Other experts have disputed his findings.
Yuval Noah Harari
The Israeli historian and author of Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. He argues that a cognitive revolution, around 70,000 years ago, gave us the powerful tool of imagination that made all future development possible.
Instagram
Social media and much of modern technology exploit our brain’s response to dopamine, the hormone released when we experience pleasure. By rewarding your brain with “dopamine hits”, the technology keeps you tapping the app and liking more posts.
150 other people
150 is known as Dunbar’s Number after the anthropologist Robin Dunbar. He theorised that this was the upper limit of the number of people with whom you can maintain stable social relationships. His research showed that Neolithic tribes and hunter-gatherer societies tend to split into smaller groups when they grow beyond this size.
Precarious
Unpredictable; uncertain.

Subjects

PDF Download

Please click on "Print view" at the top of the page to see a print friendly version of the article.