Sanctifiers of Belerion | The Neolithic 4500-2500 BCE
The Neolithic Crisis
Something went awry around 3200 BCE or not long after. Archaeologists are generally unclear about this, tending to gloss over or ignore the issue, portraying the whole of the Neolithic as a vague continuity. But it was a big turning-point. From around 3200 to at least around 2900 BCE, megalith-building in Cornwall stopped – or we have zero evidence of it.
Archaeologist Aubrey Burl gives the 600-year period of 3250-2650 BCE as a dark age in prehistory, though the initial stages of building at Avebury, Callanish and other early sites took place around 2800 BCE onwards – but that was 400 years after the downturn started.
One theory is that it was caused by a sudden climatic deterioration, the Piora Oscillation, arising from volcanic or meteoric activity elsewhere in the world – the climate cooled critically for two or three centuries. Temperatures did indeed decline around or after 3200 BCE, picking up only by 2900, but it is unclear how this affected Cornwall.
A related theory is that a cometary strike in the east Mediterranean caused a jolt in the earth’s magnetic field around 3150 BCE. Since the magnetic field protects the planet from solar and stellar radiation, this would have caused a radiation spike, affecting the climate, and plant, animal and human health. Interestingly, the first advanced megalithic structures in Britain and Ireland were built around 3000 BCE in the Hebrides and Orkneys in the far north, and in the Boyne valley, the furthest parts of these islands from the Med. Were these the least affected areas?
Meanwhile, apart from climate, others speculate on a more general downturn arising from loss of land fertility or other social or ecological factors. A theory arising from genetic and population research suggests that people were struck around this time by a pandemic or genetic condition coming from central Europe and the east. It could have been a combination of some or all of them.
While there is no direct bearing between events in ancient America and Europe, the Long Count cycle of the Mayan calendar started in 3114 BCE (lasting 5,125 years until 2012), adding another possible element to the argument for a crisis or transition point at this time. Something exceptional will have made the Mayans choose such a date as the start of such a long age.
Whatever happened, there was a social-cultural and probably an environmental collapse, ending what had gone on before. A one degree temperature difference and a period of devastating storms or drought or poor harvests could do it. This created a divide between the Neolithic 3000s and the late Neolithic of the first half of the 2000s. It might have been a disaster or simply a marginal yet critical downturn, and if a pandemic it might have been either catastrophic or slowly debilitating over a few generations. We do not know. But there is sufficient smoke here to suggest fire.
In Penwith it is likely that people were forced downhill, needing to focus on survival. There might have been a substantial drop in population by emigration, possibly even northwards. Population growth and forest clearance will have declined for a period, and possibly forest growth too, for ecological reasons, though later on both will have grown again as time went on, as climate and population revived. Clearance was a gradual process since one large, mature tree could take a long time to fell, using up quite a few stone axes, each of which would take time to source and fashion.
Life had been alright and megalithic development had gone quite well for 500 years in the ‘true Neolithic’ of the mid-3000s, until the crisis came along. So it was a tragedy when Neolithic culture declined. This would have involved hardship and loss of life, or simply a difficult time and a long grind, and Neolithic Penwithians may have wondered what they had done to deserve this. There had been relative stability, the seas had been rich with fish, the climate had been good and the tor enclosures, cliff sanctuaries, quoits and placed stones had changed the landscape. But after the crisis the old days became a memory, a legend told around the fire. It must have felt as if everything had gone wrong, and this feeling possibly lasted generations, embedding itself in the folklore of the time.
As the early 2000s came along, things gradually regained momentum in Penwith and, from about 2500 onwards, new sacred sites were being built, in many cases in newly-cleared spaces – though dates and sequences are vague here. By 2300 or 2200, stone circles had become the centre of attention and, while the tors continued as heritage places, they lost centrality and primacy.