Archaeological investigations in the southwest of France have uncovered a 6,000-year-old settlement, comprising the oldest wooden structures ever found in the region, where some of Europe’s earliest megalithic builders are thought to have resided.
The settlement was discovered by a team of researchers, led by Dr Vincent Ard from the French National Center for Scientific Research, at the site of Le Peu in the Charente department, a landscape scattered with Middle Neolithic (c.3700-4700 BC) dolmens and long barrows.
According to Dr Ard: ‘It has been known for a long time that the oldest European megaliths appeared on the Atlantic coast, but the habitats of their builders remained unknown.’
This is no longer the case, as revealed in a study published last month in the journal Antiquity.
An aerial survey in 2011 at the site detected the presence of a palisade enclosure situated on a small limestone promontory measuring 700m long and 275m wide. Within the enclosure, geomagnetic survey and excavation work revealed traces of three timber buildings (each around 13m long) defined by postholes.
Numerous pits containing lithic and ceramic materials were also uncovered near the buildings.
Only 2.5km away from Le Peu, and in direct line of sight from the promontory, is the Neolithic Tusson cemetery that comprises five long burial mounds.
Radiocarbon dating of the enclosure has placed it around 4400 BC, making these the oldest-known wooden structures in the region and the first residential site contemporary with the tombs at Tusson, raising the possibility that they were the work of the inhabitants of Le Peu.
Analysis of the paleosol recovered from the site revealed that the promontory had been bordered by a marsh, which was enhanced by a ditch palisade wall that extended around the enclosure. Researchers suggest that this was likely defensive, writing that ‘the desire to protect the community with defensive architecture marks a turning point in the social tensions that characterise the middle of the fifth millennium BC in Western Europe.’
However, traces of combustion indicating the buildings were destroyed by fire could suggest that these defences were insufficient.
This study was supported by grants from the Ministry of Culture (Regional Archaeology Service of DRAC Nouvelle Aquitaine), the Charente department, and the French National Research Agency (ANR).