A ten-year study has revealed that the ancient British site of Stonehenge was built by thousands of people from across Britain and may have started out as a burial ground rather than as an astronomical observatory or place of worship, as was previously believed.
The new theory is the work of researchers from University College London, who conducted scientific examinations on the remains of 63 people. The scientists gathered 50,000 fragments of cremated human remains from just one of the 56 Aubrey holes that surround the surviving henge. Named after the 17th-century antiquarian John Aubrey, these holes date back to the earliest period of the site, from the late fourth to early third millennium BC.
Tests on the bones confirm that the earliest phase of the monument was built in wood around 3000BC.
The study claims that as many as 4,000 people may have travelled to help build the site, at a time when the population of the British Isles was probably in the tens of thousands.
Professor Mike Parker Pearson, of University College London, told the BBC that the nearby ancient settlement of Durrington Walls housed 1,000 dwellings. The professor described it as the "largest Neolithic settlement in the whole of northern Europe".
Pearson believes evidence of tools, pots and the large amount of animal remains is enough to suggest Durrington Wells was a seasonal labour camp of sorts, set up and operated during the construction of Stonehenge.
Analysis of the animal bones showed they came from as far away as the Scottish Highlands.
Mike Pitts, editor of British Archaeology, agrees with Pearson's assessment of the evidence and told the Guardian: "The whole history of the monument is inseparably linked to death and burial".
"I have now come to believe that there are hundreds, maybe many times that, of burials at Stonehenge, and that some predate the earliest phase of the monument," Pitts said. "I believe that there are hundreds more burials to be found across the site, which will tell us more of the story."
A documentary detailing the research, findings and the new theories about Stonehenge will be shown on Channel 4, at 8pm GMT on Sunday 10 March. It will be available to watch online (UK only) via 4OD shortly afterwards.