The Mesolithic in West Penwith - Ancient Penwith

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The Mesolithic in West Penwith

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.
Carn KenidjakLife in West Penwith has unfolded since at least around 8000 BCE. Things started getting interesting, for our purposes, after about 3700 BCE, from which time the earliest lasting constructions at ancient sites were established.

Stone circles, menhirs and barrows started appearing much later around 2700 BCE, continuing to be built up to around 1700 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 from the beginning around 3700 BCE, with 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 a few centuries later in the mid-neolithic, around 3300-3200 BCE.

Before we go further, let's look at the preceding age, the mesolithic or middle stone age.
Mesolithic 8300-4500 BCE approx

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 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 lived in the uplands in summer and in the forest in winter, moving around.

Sea levels at the beginning of this period were around 20m 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.

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.

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 large 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, seeing further, gaining some 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. This 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 posessions were organic and biodegradable, though discoveries have been made in the Gwithian area near Godrevy Head of seasonal occupation, and signs exist around West Penwith of their having roamed the whole peninsula.
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