Life in West Penwith
in the Mesolithic
West Penwith was first properly occupied in the 8000s BCE as tundra conditions gradually gave way to warmer times. The period we’re looking at here was the precursor to the Neolithic or New Stone Age: during the Mesolithic or Middle Stone Age of the 5000s-4000s BCE, Cornwall was sparsely populated by nomads of archaic Atlantic European stock. In the early Mesolithic, West Penwith might have been home to just fifty people, though numbers would slowly grow, perhaps to a few hundred by 4500 BCE. They were gatherer-fisher-hunters, living in lowland forest in winter and, in summer, close to the coast or in open grasslands higher up.
They had no shortage of skills and knowledge in the use of flint, wooden and bone tools. They lived on wild foods and materials, collecting nuts, seeds, fruits, vegetables, roots, tubers, shoots, leaves and fungi, fishing in rivers and the sea, hunting wild birds, hares, pine martens and larger animals such as deer, elk, boar and auroch (wild cattle). Seafood was a rich part of their diet. The Mesolithics also used species selection – wild gardening – to favour chosen nut trees, fruiting plants, fungi, wild roots and leafy vegetables, as well as elm leaves for use as animal fodder.
They made forest clearings, usually by slash-and-burn, for places to live and to create grazing to attract deer, aurochs or wild boar, which they fed and then culled for food and skins. They moved around, taking advantage of seasonal changes in the growth of plants and movements of animals. They lived in rock shelters, bivouacs, skin-covered lean-tos and tipis, or simply outside – the climate improved through the Mesolithic, allowing a comfortable life, and there was plenty of wood for fires. They didn’t have to work long and hard to fulfil their needs.
Walking everywhere, they created path networks, worn-down haunts and camping places. A good ranging ground, Penwith had a variety of environments within a relatively walkable, clan-sized peninsula, large enough yet not too big. Communal and cooperative in lifestyle, they were dependent on the vagaries of nature and on collaborating with each other. Living lightweight lives, they left few traces and, since their possessions were made mostly of organic materials, there are few signs of them now. Finds of arrowheads, tools and middens show that they roamed the whole peninsula.
They would have honoured nature’s enormity and power, enveloped as they were in its presence and directly reliant on it for survival. They lived into their thirties, forties or even fifties, some longer, having more varied wild diets, fewer infectious diseases and a longer life-expectancy than later farming peoples, whose staple diet had reduced from twentyish to around ten main foodstuffs, while their daily workload had grown from around five to ten or so hours.
Sea levels at the beginning of the Mesolithic were around 20 metres (60ft) lower than today and slowly rising. This is important because the Mesolithics liked living close to the sea. The rise in sea levels caused the Cornish coast to shrink marginally (though not as much as other parts, especially Doggerland in the North Sea), presenting us with an archaeological problem since many Mesolithic settle-ments and quarry sites are now underwater. One example is a greenstone axe factory submerged off Penzance Lido at Gear Rock.
Around 6200 BCE the collapse of the Laurentian ice sheet in Canada’s Hudson Bay, caused by post-glacial warming, quickly raised sea levels by nearly three metres (9ft), with slower rises following, temporarily disabling the Gulf Stream Drift and bringing a colder climate to Britain until the ocean current re-established itself. This will have affected communities based in locations such as estuaries, beaches and lower coastal lands. Many beaches will have disappeared for a while until they reappeared again at a new level. Britain became an island – the first Brexit.
Maritime contact continued along the Atlantic coast of Britain and Europe and with the riverine communities of the Low Countries, using curraghs made of skins stretched on a boat-shaped frame, or log boats and rafts. Thus it was that the early peopling of Cornwall derived mostly from Iberia and Atlantic France.
In Penwith, hilltops, coasts and headlands contributed space and openness in an otherwise rather enclosed, brambly, muddy and shady woodland world. Histories and mythologies accumulated around the tors, hilltops, carns, headlands, groves, springs, rocks and great trees, endowing them with significance – herein lie the roots of legends of giants living on St Michael’s Mount, Trencrom Hill, Carn Galva and some cliff sanctuaries.
The areas around St Ives, Gurnard’s Head and Zennor Hill have yielded signs of Mesolithic activity, together with Greeb and Roskestal (south of Land’s End), St Buryan and Carn Euny. Further east in Cornwall, headlands such as Penhale, Kelsey Head and Trevose Head were Mesolithic centres of activity, as were the Lizard and places on Bodmin Moor and Dartmoor. There are traces of short-term Mesolithic occupation of Scilly.
But these are all simply places where evidence has been found. The locations that later became megalithic sites were surely known by the Mesolithics, simply because people got around and made full use of their landscape and its special places. They will have sensed and become familiar with the power places of Penwith. They might have erected a pole, placed a stone or planted a tree there, cleared them or, through repeated visiting, trampled them down to make them look and feel a little different from their surrounds.
By the end of the Mesolithic the climate had warmed, with temp-eratures in Cornwall up to 2°C warmer than they are today – very favourable. Around year 4500 BCE, along came new migrants from Biscay in the south, in trickles over the decades, bringing the beginnings of farming and ushering in the Neolithic period. A further migration from Portugal, via France, eight centuries later around 3700 BCE, brought the people who initiated the megalithic era – the quoit-builders. They spoke an early source-variant of Euskara, Basque, one of the original root-languages of Europe.
With them came new ideas, ways of life, ideas and technologies. They drew influences from the Berbers of North Africa, inheritors of the people of the once green and fertile Sahara before it dried out during the Mesolithic as things warmed up. Others from the east – present-day Turkey, Syria and beyond – gradually migrated through the Mediterranean to settle in SW Iberia. Then there were the native Iberians. This melting-pot produced these migrants, who mingled with Mesolithic Britons, and these Neolithic peoples left traces in our ancestral genetics, this early root-stock being more strongly represented in Penwith than in most places.
Along the Atlantic coast an ongoing stream of contacts and trade continued through the millennia, with Cornwall being a well-placed staging post on that route. Go to parts of Portugal and you will see menhirs and cairns like those we know in Britain – and older. Go to Penzance and you’ll see signs of late-medieval Corsair pirate raids from Tunisia and Algeria (such as the Turk’s Head pub, founded 1233). Trade and influence went the other way too: during the Bronze Age Cornish tin reached the Middle East, and Britain was the most advanced megalithic region of the time.