The life of the British upper class, 5500 years agoS

Roughly 500 years before Stonehenge was erected, the people of the British Isles were already forming vast kingdoms ruled by a wealthy elite. A new study of one ancient British skeleton gives us a glimpse of what it was like to be a king in neolithic England.

Researchers unearthed the skeleton from a massive ritual barrow near the site that would become Stonehenge. Already, given the skeleton's prominent place in this important spot, they knew it likely belonged to an important individual. And then, by analyzing deposits on his teeth and examining his bone structure, they were able to piece together where he'd lived and what he ate.

David Keys writes in The Independent:

He was born around 5500 years ago, well to the west or north-west of the Stonehenge area, probably in Wales (but conceivably in Devon or Brittany)

Aged two, he was taken east, presumably by his parents, to an area of chalk geology - probably Wiltshire (around the area that would, 500 years later, become the site of early Stonehenge). However, aged 9, he then moved back to the west (potentially to the area where he had been born) - and then, aged 11, he moved back east once more (again, potentially to the Stonehenge area).

Aged 12, 14 and 15, he travelled back and forth between east and west for short durations and at increased frequency. Scientists, analysing successive layers of the enamel in his teeth, have been able to work all this out by analysing the isotopic values of the chemical elements strontium (which changed according to underlying geology) and oxygen which reflected the sources of his drinking water.

He grew into a taller than average man, reaching an adult height of 172 centimetres. In Neolithic Britain, the average height for adult males was 165 centimetres, while in Britain today it is 176. He probably weighed around 76 kilos (12 stone) and had fairly slender build. Throughout his life, he seems to have consumed a much less coarse diet than was normal at the time . His teeth show much lighter wear than many other examples from the Neolithic. He also had a much higher percentage of meat and dairy produce in his diet than would probably have been normal at the time.

The fact that he had such a rich diet, and never suffered malnutrition, makes it clear that this man was raised in the upper classes from birth. And his teeth showed he'd spent time ranging over a large area. Exposure to different kinds of foods and minerals in water left telltale signs on his teeth that allow researchers to figure out where he went and how long he was there. This suggested that the royal family held sway over a region that stretched from Wales into England.

The story of this man's life, revealed by science, is completely fascinating. Read the whole thing over at The Independent.