National Geographic : 2014 Aug
48 national geographic • AUGUST 2014 cleared away by Neolithic farmers, but that doesn’t seem to have been entirely the case,” says Michelle Farrell, a paleoecologist at Queen’s University Belfast who studies past land use and environmental change. “Although early farmers accounted for a degree of woodland loss, in some areas much of the woodland was already gone by 5500 B.C. It seems to have been a prolonged event and largely caused by natural processes, but what those processes were we really can’t say without better climate records.” One thing is certain, says Farrell: “The open nature of the landscape would have made life much easier for those early farmers. It could have been one of the reasons why they were able to devote so much time to monument building.” It’s also clear that they had plenty of willing hands and strong backs to put to the cause. Esti- mates of Orkney’s population in Neolithic times run as high as 10,000—roughly half the number of people who live there today—which no doubt helps account for the density of archaeological sites in the islands. Unlike other parts of Britain, where houses were built with timber, thatch, and other materials that rot away over time, Orcadi- ans had abundant outcrops of fine, easily worked sandstone for building homes and temples that could last for centuries. What’s more, the Neolithic homesteaders and pioneers who settled Orkney knew what they Sheep graze among the Stones of Stenness, which may have been a model for Stonehenge. In 1814 a farmer tried to remove the ancient stones so he could more easily tend his fields. Sometime around the year 2300 B.C., for reasons that remain obscure, it all came to an end.