Sanctifiers of Belerion
The Neolithic 4500-2500ish BCE
Extracted from the book Shining Land, by Palden Jenkins, chapters 17-20.
The early Neolithic saw a leap forward in farming, social life, beliefs and circumstances in general. 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, longbarrows and perhaps some cairns. This is where things start getting interesting for our megalithic purposes.
The Neolithic or New Stone Age spanned two millennia from approximately 4500 to 2500 BCE, going through a number of phases, with a distinct farming-gardening breakthrough around 3700. Until then, people had selected out healthy plants and husbanded animals to improve food supplies, and with new seeds, breedstock, tools and techniques brought by people from Iberia and France, they learned how to graft and develop plants and increasingly 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, as they do.
The population slowly rose, boosted by new migrants and increasing to a peak of perhaps up to 2,000 across Penwith by 3500 BCE. The incomers were a new kind of people, descended from Indo-Europeans who first surfaced in Anatolia, though further back they probably originated further east. 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 the French west coast. Thereafter, the Atlantic coast from Portugal to Brittany and Normandy became a maritime corridor. Then they crossed to Cornwall, Ireland and Wales.
These people 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 developed long after this time around 1000 BCE onward, following the subsidence of the megalithic era. The question of the origins of the British and the Celts is complex 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 several cultural layers, multiple migrations and waves of innovation and change. Celts were an agglomeration of tribes with common languages, basic beliefs and lifestyles.
Neolithic Penwithians moved on an annual round of the land, using base camps and stopover places for fishing, egg-collection, herding and tending 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 many of the best spots, including hilltops, tors and headlands, causing difficulties with the indigenals. But then, these places are likely 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 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. It was here many people lived in the 3000s. This was the warmest period of ancient times – a bit like the Dordogne and Bordeaux in France today. They moved down to the forest in winter or inclement 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 and woodwork, making tools and implements, and a home life around the hearth. Penwith offered a fine ranging ground with a variety of landscapes, all within a concise area. It was safe, productive and a great place to live – at least when times were good.
Up until around 3000 BCE Penwith was extensively wooded with only modest man-made clearings and relatively open patches in the uplands. Much of the time people lived in a pretty endless wildwood environment, probably rather overwhelmed by it. Clearings would easily 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 central, humanised places of Penwith at that time. Tor hills 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.
This was not all. The Neolithics lived in a magical universe. Rocks, trees and weather systems were beings, intelligences, and everything in their environment said something meaningful. It was a living world with depth and dimension, not just property and resource. This wasn’t only 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 a blessing of the goddess. 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 us, and something about it 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 visited the mountains of Sapmi (Swedish Lappland), 90km from the nearest road and 200km from a shop, and it was easy to feel the spirit-beings of the land and to sense how the magical narratives of the Sami still enchant the land. An eagle watched us closely and I had a distinct feeling it was vetting us. I felt honoured to be there. No aircraft fly over and no mobile phones work. The reindeer are wild though managed by the Sami, who migrate them from the mountains down to the forest for winter, living a life not too unlike that of Neolithic Britons, albeit now with snowmobiles and living in warm houses.
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 encompassed 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. As the population grew it 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 still sparse, issues could be parleyed, and everyone was loosely related anyway as locals and migrants mingled and intermarried. Since walking was the only transport option and the land was 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 otherwise they would use tipis, bivouacs, caves and simple forms of shelter. In summer, the climate being equable, they would often sleep on skins around a fire. Creation of woodland clearings grew through slash-and-burn and tree-felling using 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 less need for it than many centuries later when settled farming began. But they were beginning to compost, using grazing and snuffling animals to fertilise patches of land and dig organic waste into the ground.
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 a quite ample wild-sourced diet. Patches of land on the seasonal round would be weeded and tended. Toward the mid-Neolithic around the 3700s BCE a more genuine form of farming developed, brought in by incomers who used hoes and ards (stone-tipped hand-ploughs), clearing rocks from selected field plots and carrying out elementary 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 in those times. The now-submerged Gear Rock, off Penzance, was one of these 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 the Isle of Scilly. The coasts around the Irish and Celtic Seas formed an interlinked maritime region with Penwith at its southern end.
Though their lifestyles were simple, they understood the movements of the heavens and they were beginning to erect 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 days of megalithic science. Quoit building involved raising multi-ton capstones to at least head height. While metaphysically motivated, this involved sophisticated engineering. The principles of the megalithic age were being established – principles of astronomy, geomancy and mathematics that were to outlast the Neolithic period.