Neolithic 4500-2300ish BCE
The neolithic revolution
, gaining ground in Cornwall from around 4000 BCE
, involved influxes of people and ideas, adoption of horticulture and husbandry, and settlement in more rooted territories, though people still moved around seasonally. Creation of woodland clearings increased, and new tool technologies and social dynamics developed. Patches of forest were cut or burned, though they often re-grew within decades once people moved on, not least because they had not yet learned how to maintain soil fertility.
Horticultural and herding products were at first an add-on to wild-sourced diets - patches of land on the seasonal round would be weeded and gardened to encourage chosen species. Then things developed into transhumant farming - moving seasonally between residences for different purposes. Wooden settlement places and dwellings were established at these residences.
Toward the mid-neolithic around 3500 BCE
genune farming was developing. People still used hoes rather than ploughs, clearing rocks from chosen bits of land and establishing field systems, doing land, plant and livestock improvement and building permanent dwellings such as log cabins.
This was the warmest period, with people living in the uplands in summer, concentrating in the northern hills of Penwith. Penwith was a convenient-sized little world, a day or more's trek from one end to the other.
Though these people's lifestyles were simple by our standards, this wasn't because they were simple-minded. They already understood the movemets of the heavens and were beginning to erect large stone structures. Such constructions were metaphysically motivated, and it was in this time that the principles of the megalithic age were established - principles of astronomy and geomancy that were to characterise the next two millennia up to 1500 BCE, leaving traces for three further millennia until the late middle ages.
The neolithic heyday
There was another wave of immigration around 3500 BCE. These were the people who built the chambered cairns and quoits. Society was tribal but incrementally it was becoming stratified: those investing knowledge, skills and effort in capital improvements, or the descendants of outstanding individuals, or the holders of knowledge or stature became the new elites.
Yet still, the inhabitants of West Penwith were intermarried and related, and there was a clan communality to it. Wealth and power were held by the leaderships, but this was clan wealth and power and not subject to the abuses of power we later became so familiar with.
Wealth took the form of land, animal pedigrees and seed stocks, tools, boats, ornaments, dwellings and comforts such as furs, decorated items, woven and felted woollens or even nuggets of gold picked up from the land and fashioned. Ancestry and gene stock were forms of wealth and privilege too, as were knowledge or spiritual status.
Humans began changing the face of the land: clearings and trackways developed, and constructed sacred sites were built in the form of tor enclosures
and chambered cairns
. People were investing energy in capital improvements.
Attitudinally they were beginning to impact more on nature, building and moving things around and developing an increasing urge to make a mark, mould reality and leave remains for posterity.
Regional travel and exchange were common in summer, using sea-going paddle-powered boats to sail to France and up the Irish Sea, the Severn Sea and English Channel. Knowledge elites developed - shamans, wisewomen, healers, keepers of histories, artisans and builders. Advanced thinking on time and tide, medicine, mathematics, place-knowledge, husbandry and engineering was evolving rapidly.
There's something strange in this, shown by the building of the quoits between 3700 and 3200 BCE
. Of all the challenges surmounted in Cornwall during the megalithic era, quoits involved the most advanced engineering effort of all - raising a heavy capstone onto stone uprights higher than a man. This involved serious planning, preparation and execution.
So from an engineering viewpoint, the most complex structures came first, with the quoits, and later menhirs and stone circles were simpler and less strenuous. But in terms of complex knowledge, the stone circles and menhirs of the bronze age display far more advanced theoretical thinking.
These people perceived an afterlife, feeling that the ancestors held the tribe safe and protected it. The bones of the deceased, at least of revered ones, were stripped of flesh with stone knives and by sky-burial (skeletons picked by scavenging birds), then they were used in ceremonies and probably stored in chambered cairns.
This wasn't morbid or sentimental but an expression of a sense of posterity and continuity. Bones and rocks symbolised enduring verities, suggesting another reality, 'the unborn and the undying', the stillness beyond time, growth and decay. The lineage and soul of the tribe were thus strengthened and ensured. These bones were the tribal archives, memory-sticks, and representations of the genetic inheritance of the people.
The ancestors were alive in a parallel world. Living people were their ancestors' progeny, carrying their genes, family patterns and identity. The life of the tribe was a joint effort between humans, nature and the world beyond.
People saw themselves as an integral part of nature and its periodicities, totally affected by it. This involved developing specialist skills and knowledge to help deal with life's changes and challenges. Their intuitive and dowsing abilities were used in the location, orientation and design of early sacred sites, though they also thought this through quite carefully, since they sited at least some quoits so that the sun at solstice or the moon at lumar maximum could be seen rising or setting over prominent marker-points on the horizon. Trees, rocks and weather systems were seen as beings and sacredness lay within all things.
Life was at times tough, sometimes blessed, and they sought to find out how and why life went as it did and how to make the best of it.
They nevertheless accrued a certain sense of human distinctiveness. They had developed a need to define at least some dedicated human space in the engulfing vastness of nature by establishing special places and centres of activity or sacredness - human places. They were beginning tentatively to alter nature and change the face of the land. But not much yet.
The magic circle
Around 3700 BCE and after,
the neolithics enclosed some of their hilltop sites with stone and rock walls and banks - these were the tor enclosures, such as Carn Brea, Carn Galva, Trencrom Hill, Carn Kenidjack and St Michael's Mount.
They drew a line around their space to distinguish inside from outside, higher from lower and human space from nature, to consecrate the hilltop enclosures and perhaps also to keep wild animals out and children in.
These banks will have acted as a sort of 'magic circle' around each of the hills. Tor enclosures were sacred places, outside wooded normality, with a panoramic view, and the sky-spirits, the ancestors and stars were close by.