The sun begins to slip beneath the clouds causing rays of light to undulate across the surface of the road. In the layby, the Cornish stone wall is enveloped in wildflowers leaving only the lattice of the stones peeking through the clumps of green; cornflowers, meadow buttercups and red campion nudge through the spikes of the gorse that swathes over the structure. I pass the overgrown National Trust sign and hop over the stone style and into the field. The structure of Lanyon Quoit is immediately ahead, imposing on the raw, wild landscape it sits in. Somewhere from beneath the thicket of ferns surrounding the ancient monument, a pheasant squawks.
I approach the quoit, also known as a dolmen, and run my hands along the rough stone slabs, fingers rising and falling with the uneven surface which is now encrusted with mosses and lichens. I walk slowly around the structure before slipping between the stones, feeling a rush of claustrophobia as I duck beneath the huge, formidable capstone.
The truth about the quoits, which are thought to have been constructed 3500 – 3000 BC and typically pre-date Stonehenge, is that historians don’t know a great deal about them; what they were used for, how they were constructed. However it is presumed they were linked to death and ceremonial burial. One belief is that corpses would be lain out on the top stone for the birds to pick the bones clean. Once this was done, the remains would be buried underneath the dolmen in a communal grave. Due to the acidity of the moorland soil, many of these remains will most likely have been lost to the earth, so this remains unproven.
This might sound like a heathen way of treating a loved one who has passed on but allowing nature to deal with the remains of a life has always been believed to be a sustainable, practical way of dealing with the dead, as well as a way of respecting nature.
In fact for some communities, such as the Buddhists in Tibet, this practice is still common. Known as ‘sky burial’, bodies are placed atop mountains to allow the elements and animals to strip the corpses down to bones, the soul of the dead long gone, the body taking its place in the circle of life once more as it is given back to nature. One of the main creatures to reap the benefits of sky burials are vultures, however some species found themselves victims as modern technology interfered with the ancient practice unchanged for thousands of years. The Parsi, a religious community in India who also partake in sky burials as well as relying on vultures to dispose of the bodies of cattle that pass away, found themselves in serious trouble back in the late 90’s/early 00’s. The introduction of diclofenac, an anti-inflammation drug given to cattle, turned out to be fatal for the vultures that were helping to keep their world in balance. Cattle treated with the drug caused the near extinction of the local birds. In fact its believe that 95 – 99% of Indian vultures have lost their lives to the drug leading to near collapse of a system which had been in place for thousands of years; corpses were left to rot in the open, attracting hundreds of wild dogs (some carriers of rabies) to the community and increased of the risk of disease. Despite being banned in 2006 after the research was revealed, the drug is still in use and the future of the vulture remains hanging in the balance and the Parsis community finding themselves turning to cremation as an alternative to dealing with the dead, another stark reminder that our every interference in nature is ultimately a threat to ourselves.
I walk away from the quoit and sit beneath a lone tree, looking back towards the megalithic tomb. Above it, circling beneath the clouds, a large brown shape with a bright yellow beak nestled between hooded, brown eyes gazes down at me. The buzzard turns it head and scans the landscape below. I think of the pheasant which is secreted somewhere beneath the vegetation. It had better stay hidden or it may find itself with an unexpected invitation to lunch. The buzzard soars above me, catching the thermals it rises and falls, all the time keeping an eye on the moorland floor. In times gone by, the buzzard would have been exactly the type of bird that would have visited the dolmen. Whilst these birds do prey upon small animals, they will also consume carrion and thousands of years ago this bird could have been one of many gathering to watch as the bodies of our Neolithic ancestors were lain out as an offering.
Today, some treat British birds of prey as a nuisance, even going as far as to kill them to prevent them from preying upon game birds. I watch as the buzzard swoops in circles that veer east, and contemplate how we have lost our care for the creatures that sustain us. How times have changed but not, it seems, for the better.