The Late Neolithic in West Penwith, Cornwall - Shining Land

Shining Land
The ancient sites of West Penwith, Cornwall
Palden Jenkins
Shining Land
and what they tell us about megalithic civilisation
Go to content

The Late Neolithic in West Penwith, Cornwall

Sanctifiers of Belerion | The Neolithic 4500-2500 BCE

The Late Neolithic

Likely placed stone near Pordenack Point
An interesting rock at Carn Boel
The Neolithics had oriented and aligned quoits and stones to key astronomical and terrestrial points, but Bronze Age megalith builders took things further. They developed an advanced mathematics that included knowledge of the phi ratio, the Golden Mean, Euclidian and Pythagorean geometry, together with knowledge of the Saros and Metonic cycles, knowing the dimensions of the earth and understanding the precession of the equinoxes. They had skills in logistics, engineering, medicine, farming, land management and community life. Before this came along though, for a few centuries not a lot seemed to happen in Penwith. Or it hasn’t been identified yet.

There was seemingly a quiet half-millennium at the beginning of the 2000s when no building of sacred sites is known in West Cornwall. Around 2500 BCE things began to change and a new class of sites appeared across Britain, including the stone circles. Archaeologists in Penwith tend not to date local sites earlier than 2500 BCE and they’re probably largely correct, but some dating revisions might be necessary. Oriented stones, some chambered cairns and some but not many solid cairns might have been built before 2500.

This long gap in Penwith’s prehistory is a bit spurious. Nothing happened? It raises questions: was this genuinely a quiet, under-populated and underdeveloped gap in human activity in Penwith, or are we yet to discover something that changes the picture? Or is there something wrong with interpretation and dating of sites? Here we have a period with multiple questions needing answers. What happened in Penwith in the late Neolithic? What suddenly sparked the subsequent Bronze Age revival?

Whatever is the case, new ideas and initiatives started gathering pace around the mid-2000s, giving rise to a wave of megalith-building with new styles, architecture, principles and scale. It all began with a transitional period, roughly 2500 to 2300 – the Neolithic-Bronze Age transition (NBA), or the Chalcolithic or Copper Age – during which ensuing Bronze Age ideas and prototypes took shape.

The ideas defining the Bronze Age started amongst indigenous people. This is a key point. It has often been assumed that, since the Beaker influx during the NBA period brought new innovations, cultural influences and people, it also brought most or all of the ideas that fuelled the megalithic period. Yet the core ideas and impulses of the megalithic era already existed in Britain, and early menhirs and stone circles in Britain and Ireland preceded the Beaker arrival by a century and more. The foundations and protocols of the Bronze Age were more likely mainly indigenous, though incomers could well have brought additional ideas, skills and impetus.

Thus it is likely that the stone circles and menhirs in Penwith were started before the Beaker influx gained definitive traction – the problem is that precise construction dates are difficult to pin down. Perhaps the incomers arrived because Britain was seen to be a vibrant and promising migrant destination. We simply do not know.

Incoming Beaker people seemed more interested in building cairns and barrows than intricate stone circle complexes. This was particularly the case for those Beaker folk coming from central Europe and landing in SE England, who were partially descended from Yamnaya or Kurgan people of Ukraine and Kazakhstan. They introduced the idea of whole-body burial of their chiefs and shamans, while Britons tended not to think so individualistically, seeming instead to build barrows and cairns for other reasons, such as geomantic ones.

For people to migrate, there must be push and pull factors, other-wise there is every good reason to stay at home. Push factors can include overpopulation, climatic and environmental change, social friction, invasion, oppression or poverty, and pull factors can include fertile or relatively empty territory, or a vibrant culture experiencing good times and attracting inward migration. Early megalithic developments in Britain could have drawn interest from Brittany, Iberia and Middle Europe. One thing seems to be true: the Beaker incomers appear to have been relatively amicable, with no sign of armed invasion or social friction and many signs of a welcome and positive interchange.
Carn Galva
Carn Galva
By the later 2000s the climate had warmed up. Evidence suggests that people in outlying areas of Britain such as Cornwall, Arran, the Hebrides and Orkneys were not poor crofters eking out a meagre living from a poor landscape, under harsh conditions. They did quite well, and though we don’t know much about their boats, there are signs of trade, exchange and interdependency. Even remote St Kilda, way out in the Atlantic off the Hebrides, was occupied in the early 2000s – the leading part of Britain at that time was the Outer Hebrides and the Orkneys.

The late Neolithic saw the beginning of a different age and, by the late 2000s, Britain experienced several centuries of cultural florescence. One thing that changed was people’s attitude toward nature and the world around them. Woodland clearings grew over the generations and started to join up, creating bigger open spaces that had not been there before. Around 20% of the land in Penwith was cleared by 2500 BCE, more in some parts than others, and clearance accelerated to 50% by 1800.

A new landscape emerged and people increasingly thought this is ours – we made this. They no longer felt quite like the guests in nature they had been before. Increasingly they were its shapers and movers, with an escalating urge to change the face of the earth and improve their lives. The impetus had built up during the late Neo-lithic and the NBA. By 1800 Britain was a noteworthy civilisation amongst those of the time, including in Mesopotamia, Egypt, Crete, Persia, Harappa (Pakistan), China, Mexico and the Andes. They were experts in astronomy and mathematics, and might even have taught the Egyptians a few things.

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