The Mesolithic | 8300-4500 BCE - Shining Land

Shining Land
The ancient sites of West Penwith, Cornwall
Palden Jenkins
Shining Land
Site nearly complete - organically growing
and what they tell us about megalithic civilisation
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The Mesolithic | 8300-4500 BCE

Life in West Penwith
in the Mesolithic
8300-4500 BCE
Extracted from the book Shining Land, by Palden Jenkins, chapters 17-20.

West Penwith was first properly occupied in the 8000s BCE as tundra conditions gave way to warmer times. The period we’re looking at here, the Mesolithic or Middle Stone Age of the 5000s-4000s BCE when Cornwall was sparsely populated by nomads of archaic Atlantic European stock, was the precursor to the Neolithic or New Stone Age.

Portheras Cove
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. These people were gatherer-fisher-hunters, living in lowland forest in winter and, in summer, close to the coast or in the more 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 cleared some areas, usually by slash-and-burn, as places to live and to create grazing to attract deer, aurochs or wild boar, which they fed and 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, mostly amenable to a comfortable life, and there was plenty of wood for fires. They didn’t have to work too long and hard to fulfil their needs.

They walked everywhere – pathway networks and favoured haunts would have developed. Penwith was a good ranging-ground, with a variety of environments and options available within a relatively familiar, walkable terrain – a clan-sized peninsula, large enough yet not too big. They were communal and largely cooperative in lifestyle, dependent on the vagaries of nature and on collaboration with each other. Living relatively 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, stone tools and middens show that they roamed the whole peninsula.

They would naturally have honoured nature’s enormity and power, enveloped as they were in its presence and directly reliant on it for their survival. They lived into their forties or even fifties, with more varied wild diets and fewer infectious diseases, even a longer life-expectancy than later farming peoples, whose staple diet reduced from twentyish to around ten main foodstuffs, while the daily workload increased 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 now because the Mesolithics liked living close to the sea. This rise in sea levels caused the Cornish coast to shrink, presenting us with an archaeological problem since many Mesolithic settlements and tool quarrying 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. Britain became an island – this was the first Brexit. Maritime contact continued along the Atlantic coast and with the Low Countries, using curraghs made of skins stretched on a boat-shaped frame, or log boats and rafts.

In Penwith, hilltops, coastal areas and headlands were important since they gave a sense of 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 stories 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 (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 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 the landscape they inhabited. They will have sensed and become familiar with the power places of Penwith.

By the end of the Mesolithic the climate had warmed, with temperatures in Cornwall up to 2°C warmer than they are today – very favourable. Then, around year 4500 BCE, along came new peoples from the south, in trickles over the decades, bringing the beginnings of farming and the Neolithic period. A later migration from what’s now 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 languages of Europe.

With them came new ideas, ways of life and technologies. They drew their influences from the Berbers in North Africa, inheritors of the original people of the green and fertile Sahara, before it dried out during the Mesolithic. Others from the east – present-day Turkey, Syria and beyond – had sailed through the Mediterranean to settle in SW Iberia. Then there were the native Iberians. Out of this melting-pot came these migrants. They mingled with Mesolithic Britons, and these Neolithic peoples left genetic traces in our ancestral genetic root-stock today.

Along the Atlantic coast an ongoing stream of contacts and trade continued through the millennia, with Cornwall a well-placed staging post on that route. Go to parts of Portugal and you will see menhirs and cairns much 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 in 1233). Trade and influence went the other way too: during the Bronze Age Cornish tin reached the Middle East, and the most advanced megalithic region of the time was Britain.

Shining Land
A book by Palden Jenkins about the ancient sites of West Penwith in Cornwall
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