Sanctifiers of Belerion
The Neolithic 4500-2500ish BCE
Oriented stone on Chapel Carn Brea, pointing toward Carn Bosavern
The early Neolithic saw a leap forward in farming, society, beliefs and life circumstances. It laid the ground for the dawn of the megalithic era around 3700 BCE, bringing with it the enclosure of hilltop tors, the building of quoits, placed stones and longbarrows. Here things start getting interesting for our megalithic purposes.
The Neolithic or New Stone Age spanned two millennia from around 4500 to 2500 BCE, going through a number of phases, with farming-gardening breakthroughs in Cornwall around 4000 and 3700. Up to then, people selected out healthy plants and husbanded animals to improve their food supplies, but largely they lived on wild foods and use of plant selection. With new seeds, breedstock, tools and techniques brought by incomers from Iberia and France, they began to graft and develop plants for foods, medicines and materials and to domesticate animals. Farming was smallholding-sized while wild foods and seafood remained the main food source. Life was alright and plentiful resources and space were available – though crises and harder times will no doubt have happened too.
Population slowly rose, boosted by new migrants and increasing to a peak of perhaps up to 2,000 across Penwith by 3500 BCE. The latest incomers were a new kind of people, descended from Indo-Europeans first surfacing in Anatolia, though further back they probably originated further toward Central Asia. Step by step they spread to Greece around 7000 BCE, then to Sicily, Sardinia and Spain’s Mediterranean coast, settling the Atlantic coast around 5400 BCE – the Algarve and the Tagus river area around Lisbon. Others went overland from the Med, through the Garonne and Loire valleys to Aquitaine and Brittany. Time passed, and they then crossed to Cornwall, Ireland, Wales and as far as the Hebrides and Orkney.
These were not Celts but early predecessors to them, acting as a root population to which many other strains and influences were added over time. ‘Celts’ were not a people but a cultural and language grouping that coagulated 3,000 years later, following the subsidence of the megalithic era. The origin of the Celts is multiplex and unclear. There are traces of archaic Europeans amongst Pictish, Gaelic, Brythonic and even Germanic British, and these archaic roots were overlaid though time by multiple cultural layers, migrations and waves of change. Celts were an agglomeration of tribes with common languages, beliefs and lifestyles, who became recognisable as a culture group only after 1000 BCE.
Neolithic Penwithians moved on an annual round of the landscape, using base camps and stopover places for fishing, egg-collection, herding and tending of herbs and crops. The landscape was their home and there was space enough for frictions with other people not to be a big issue – though some prehistorians argue that incomers occupied the best spots, including hilltops, tors and headlands, causing difficulties with the indigenals. But these places are likely already to have been important to the locals, who would surely have been using them already. There are no signs of a hostile takeover, but the immigrants might nevertheless have been astute settlers.
The uplands in the north stretching from Rosewall Hill near St Ives to Carn Kenidjack near St Just were cooler and less humid in summer than the woods lower down, and their grasslands were clearer of trees and undergrowth. Many people lived in the uplands in the 3000s, the warmest period of ancient times – Cornwall was a bit like the Dordogne and Aquitaine in SW France today. People moved down to the forest in poor weather, where wood for fuel was plentiful, occupying bivouacs and huts, and hunting, trapping and foraging for food. Wintertime was for craftwork, repairs, clothes-making, timber felling, woodwork, making tools and implements, and a home life around the hearth. Penwith offered a fine ranging ground and a safe, productive and a homely place to live – at least when times were good.
Up until the early 2000s BCE Penwith was extensively wooded with only modest man-made clearings and open patches in the uplands. Much of the time people lived in a pretty endless wildwood environment, probably rather overwhelmed by it. Clearings would re-grow upon abandonment. On hilltops such as Chûn Castle, Zennor Hill, Carn Galva and Chapel Carn Brea, a wider area could be kept clear, providing vistas and making these the most central, humanised places of Penwith at that time. Tors, carns and cliff sanctuaries allowed people to emerge from the woods to gain a sense of the wider world and the dome of the starry heavens.
The Neolithics lived in a magical universe. A living world with dimension and depth, it wasn’t just property and resource. Rocks, trees and weather systems were seen as beings, and everything in their environment said something meaningful. This wasn’t a worldview or belief – it was a functional reality that worked. In a magical world, magical rules apply, and they are discovered experientially, instinctively and intuitively. An incoming weather system has character and it brings messages – a windy gust can have malintent and a rain shower can bring divine blessings. The timing of a bird flying overhead may answer a question. Permission would be asked of a tree before harvesting its fruit, nuts or branches. People would wait for the waxing moon before planting seeds.
The Neolithics lived in a different reality to ours, and this is faintly remembered in our deep memory, drawing us to ancient sites today. We seek something of the reality they lived in – perhaps a certain simplicity, rootedness in the land, wraparound tribal security and a magical world that hasn’t been exorcised by engines and dynamite.
Once I was in the mountains of Sápmi (Lappland), 90km from a road and 200km from a shop, and it was not at all difficult to feel the spirit-beings and sense how the magical narratives of the Sámi still enchant the land. It was a moving experience, even though the conditions were wild, the area was remote and this was not my home territory. An eagle watched closely, vetting us. I felt honoured to be there. No aircraft fly over and no mobile phones work. The reindeer are managed by the Sámi when they migrate from the mountains down to the forest for winter, until not long ago living a life not too unlike that of Neolithic Britons – albeit nowadays using snowmobiles, living in warm houses, exporting reindeer meat to Japan and live reindeer to re-stock the Scots Highlands.
The Neolithic Revolution
The Neolithic revolution, gaining momentum in Cornwall around 4000 BCE, arose from influxes of people and ideas that clearly fired up the locals. It involved the adoption of horticulture, wheat and barley growing, herding, husbandry and other life-improvements, together with the establishment of more settled and defined tribal territories than before. Population grew and life transitioned from nomadism – relatively rootless migration – toward transhumance – following a local, seasonal round in a more defined home patch.
There might have been five to ten such patches in Penwith, each of a few square miles – though boundaries were less important than heartlands, and competitive territoriality was not the issue it later became. Population was sparse, issues could be parlayed, and everyone had become loosely related, as locals and migrants had mingled and intermarried. Since walking was the only transport option and the lowlands were often wooded and enclosed, these ranging grounds would have seemed bigger than they do now.
Log and turf dwellings came to be used as winter residences, some family-sized and some communal, and in summer people would use tipis, bivouacs, caves and simple forms of shelter. The climate being equable, they would often sleep on skins around a fire. Wildwood clearings were created using slash-and-burn and tree-felling with not very durable stone tools. Moving on was a necessity because the Neolithics did not know how to maintain and improve soil fertility, though at that stage there was little need for it since moving on was not difficult and built into long-established routines. But they did organic waste composting and attracted grazing and snuffling animals to fertilise patches of land and dig the ground, as well as culling the animals for food.
Mostly being gatherers, fishers, growers and hunters, transhumance suited them well. Movement coincided with the fruiting of trees, sprouting of mushrooms or the swarming of pilchards. Gardened and herded produce became an add-on to an ample wild-sourced diet. Patches of land on the seasonal round would be weeded and tended. Around the 3700s BCE a more genuine form of farming developed, brought in by incomers who used hoes and ards (stone-tipped hand-drawn ploughs), clearing rocks from selected field plots and carrying out land, plant and livestock improvement.
Greenstone axes and tools from Mount’s Bay have been found as far away as Essex and Yorkshire – long-distance commodity exchange took place even then, and such durable, high-value items were used as gifts in an economy where gifting and encouraging good relations within and between tribes were important.
The now-submerged Gear Rock, off Penzance, was one of the stone factories, as were Gurnard’s Head and Carn Brea. Travel and trade were common in summer, using seagoing paddle and sailing boats like canoes and curraghs to journey to France and up the Irish Sea, the Severn Sea, English Channel and to the Isle of Scilly. The coastal lands of the Irish and Celtic Seas formed an interlinked maritime region with Penwith at its southern end, acting as a stopover on voyages to France and southwards.
Though their lifestyles were simple by our standards, Neolithics understood the motions of the heavens and their connection with events in their lives. They erected large stone structures in the form of quoits, positioned to align with critical soli-lunar rising and setting points and to align terrestrially with other sites. These were the early, prototype days of megalithic science. Quoit building involved raising multi-ton capstones to at least head height. While metaphysically motivated, this involved sophisticated engineering. Megalithic principles were being established – principles of astronomy, geomancy and mathematics that were to outlast the Neolithic period.