Before the Megalith Builders - Ancient Penwith | Cornwall

West Penwith, Cornwall
Ancient Penwith
The prehistoric landscape of the Land's End peninsula
Ancient Penwith
Ancient Penwith
The prehistoric landscape of the Land's End Peninsula
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Before the Megalith Builders

Mesolithic beginnings in West Penwith

This page outlines the pre-megalithic period in West Penwith. In the 4,000-year mesolithic era the population in Penwith was sparse, migrating on a seasonal round and light in impact.

Permanent ancient sites were first established in the mid-neolithic from about 3700 BCE onwards, and megalith-building rose to a zenith in the bronze age over a millennium later, from around 2600-1800 BCE.
Carn KenidjakLife in West Penwith has unfolded since around 8000 BCE, when the climate warmed and tundra gave way to more equable living conditions. Things started getting interesting, for our purposes, after about 4000 BCE in the neolithic. The earliest lasting constructions at ancient sites were established around 3700 BCE.

Stone circles, menhirs and barrows started appearing much later from around 2500 BCE, continuing to be built up to around 1800 BCE. Then, from around 1500 the megalithic era went into decline and, by 1200 it was all over.

Evidence from alignments in West Penwith suggests that the principles of location and alignment of ancient sites in West Penwith were established at the very beginning, around 3700 BCE, in the time of the building of the quoits and neolithic tor enclosures. It is highly likely that the backbone alignments of the peninsula, laying down a locational structure on which the bronze age sites were built, were established around this time.

Before we enter the neolithic age, let's look at the preceding age, the mesolithic or middle stone age.

Life in the Mesolithic  8300-4500 BCE

Higher Hill Wood, near TrencromDuring this time Cornwall was sparsely populated by nomadic people. In the early mesolithic West Penwith might have been home to just a few hundred people in perhaps 10-20 extended families, though numbers gradually grew from there.

They were gatherer-hunter-fishers living in a densely forested environment, using flint, wooden and bone tools, living on wild foods and materials while clearing some areas to live in or to create grazing for deer or wild boar, which they then culled according to need. They probably lived in the uplands in summer and in the forest in winter, moving around different areas of the peninsula to gather foodstuffs and take advantage of seasonal changes.

Sea levels at the beginning of this period were around 20 metres (60ft) lower than now, and slowly rising. One particular event happened around 6200 BCE, when the collapse of the Laurentian ice sheet in Canada, caused by global warming, quickly raised sea levels by nearly three metres, temporarily cutting off the Gulf Stream Drift and making the climate in Britain colder for a while until the ocean current re-established itself. This caused Britain to be cut off from Europe, becoming an island. In the times following this there was maritime contact with mainland Europe, mainly down Europe's Atlantic coast and with the Low Countries - probably using boats a bit like curraghs, made of skins stretched around a boat-shaped frame.

Climate was warming and, by the end of the mesolithic and the beginning of the neolithic around 4500 BCE, temperatures were 1-2°C warmer than today. People were migrating up the west coast of Europe, from northern Iberia and Portugal and likely speaking an early source-variant of Basque, one of the original languages of Europe.

Higher Hill Woods, as seen from Trencrom HillWhile living on wild foods, the mesolithics also used species selection - wild gardening - to favour chosen nut trees, fruiting plants, fungi, wild root and leaf vegetables, as well as elm leaves as fodder for animals, which then were hunted.

People lived in bivouacs, rock shelters and tipi-like structures. They had extended families which would spread out and then congregate at special times and seasons. They walked everywhere they went. They would have been communal and largely cooperative in lifestyle, very much dependent on the vagaries of nature.

Spiritually they would have honoured nature's enormity and power, enveloped as they were in its overwhelming presence and spending much of their time under the canopy of the forests. They lived into their forties or fifties, having more varied wild diets and fewer infectious diseases, even slightly longer life-expectancy, than later farming peoples. Their gathering skills, nature knowledge and understanding of plant medicines were quite developed.
Gurnard's Head from Carn Naun, with Pendeen Watch behind
Gurnards HeadHilltops and coastal headlands were important since they allowed people to emerge from the forest, giving them more of a sense of space, clarity, perspective and a certain freedom in their otherwise rather enclosed, damp, brambly and shady woodland world. Gurnard's Head is one of the sites where mesolithic traces have been found.

Their sacred places were hilltop carns, headlands, groves, springs, rocks and great trees. An urge to create special places was important, giving shape and mythos to people's living environment. Histories and mythologies accumulated around such places, endowing them with significance - here lie the roots of stories of giants living on St Michael's Mount, Trencrom Hill and Carn Galva.

People left few traces since most of their possessions were organic and biodegradable, and the acid soils of Cornwall tend not to preserve such organic artefacts. However, discoveries have been made in the Gwithian area of seasonal occupation near Godrevy Head in East Penwith, and signs exist (arrowheads and stone tools) around West Penwith of their having roamed the whole peninsula.
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