The Neolithic Revolution saw the fundamental shift from hunting and gathering to agriculture, permanent settlements, and the eventual rise of civilization. This crucial turning point in human history also ushered in the megalithic era. One conundrum of this epoch was the simultaneous worldwide obsession and proficiency with crafting stone. As if out of nowhere, our ancestors starting amassing incredible megalithic complexes, while also developing a firm understanding of agriculture and animal husbandry. Many of the megalithic sites from antiquity are mute and anonymous, leaving us with few clues as to who their builders were.
One such site rests in Brittany, France. The Carnac stones are an enigmatic and densely amassed collection of megalithic sites strewn about the village of Carnac. These sites are comprised of alignments, dolmens, tumuli, and single menhirs. Carnac is home to more than 3,000 prehistoric standing stones that seem to stretch on forever. The Stones were hewn from local rock and erected by the pre/proto-Celtic peoples of Brittany, some of them brought from miles away. Most European experts believe the megaliths were erected during the Neolithic period, lasting from 4500 BC until 2000 BC. The precise date of the stones is difficult to ascertain as little dateable material has been found beneath them. 3300 BC is the date most commonly estimated for the site’s main phase of construction and activity, yet it has been suggested that many of these megaliths date back to the Mesolithic, even possibly to the Upper Paleolithic.
But who built them and why? The precise alignments and the ancient’s ability to move the massive stones is humbling. Before being smashed by an 18th century earthquake, one menhir known as Er Grah or Le Grand Menhir Brise (“The Great Broken Menhir”) stood over 70 feet tall and weighed in excess of 500 tons. By today’s standards, only the largest of cranes would be able to move such a monstrous slab of earth. Yet, this stone was quarried over 50 miles away and transported to its current home over 5,000 years ago.
The builders of Carnac left us no writings as to their motives or the technologies behind the construction of the sites. Theories range from the site being a physical depiction of Roman legionaries having been turned to stone by the magician, Merlin. Others suggest the site was used to mark burial plots of the local peoples, yet no human remains have been found outside of the tumulus enclosures. One theory explains that the site demonstrates hundreds of years of astronomical observations and that the site’s alignments showcase the studies of the ancient peoples.
Alexander Thom, Professor of Engineering at Oxford University, completed a series of measurements at the site. His research demonstrated that the builders of Carnac could calculate latitude and the circumference of the earth. His data also suggested that these ancient architects could have possessed a working knowledge of spherical trigonometry and additional forms of higher mathematics. Carnac is located at the unique latitude on the Earth at which the solstice sun, both summer and winter, form a perfect Pythagorean triangle relative to the parallel of latitude, that is to the east-west, equinoctial axis of the site. In turn, this 3:4:5 triangle is the first of the Pythagorean triangular set and is expressed in the dimensions of the Crucuno monument. (Thom, 1978) The Carnac Stones.
If Thom’s theories are correct, this would suggest that the ancients had a greater working knowledge of astronomy, science, and mathematics than they are credited for. Could the site have been used as a calendar – allowing local farmers to track the seasons and advantageous times to plant and harvest their crops? Could the site have served as a massive lunar observatory – allowing our ancestors to track and study the heavens? Research continues to unravel the mystery of the Carnac stones, however their purpose currently eludes us.