This page outlines the early stages of life in West Penwith. In the 4,000-year mesolithic period 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 1,500 years later.
Life in West Penwith has unfolded since at least around 8000 BCE. Things started getting interesting, for our purposes, after about 3700 BCE in the neolithic, from which time the earliest lasting constructions at ancient sites were established.
Stone circles, menhirs and barrows started appearing much later around 2600 BCE, continuing to be built up to around 1800 BCE, and then, 400-500 years later, megalithic culture came apart.
Evidence from alignments in West Penwith suggests that the principles of location and alignment of ancient sites in West Penwith were established at the beginning, around 3700 BCE, in the time of the building of the quoits and early chambered cairns. It is 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 go further, let's look at the preceding age, the mesolithic or middle stone age.
Mesolithic 8300-4500 BCE
During 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 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 hunted. They probably lived in the uplands in summer and in the forest in winter, moving around areas of the peninsula.
Sea levels at the beginning of this period were around 20 metres (60ft) lower than now, and slowly rising. Britain had not long before been cut off from Europe to become an island, and there was maritime contact with mainland Europe, even at this time - 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, temperatures were 1-2°C warmer than today. People had migrated up the west coast of Europe, from today's Basque country and Portugal and likely speaking an early variant of Basque.
While 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.
Hilltops and coastal headlands were important since they allowed people to emerge from the forest, allowing them some space, clarity, perspective and a certain freedom in their otherwise rather enclosed, damp, brambly and shady woodland world.
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, though discoveries have been made in the Gwithian area of seasonal occupationnear Godrevy Head, and signs exist (arrowheads and stone tools) around West Penwith of their having roamed the whole peninsula.