The Late Neolithic - 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 Late Neolithic

Prehistory > The Neolithic
Sanctifiers of Belerion | The Neolithic 4500-2500 BCE

Downturn and the Late Neolithic
Extracted from the book Shining Land, by Palden Jenkins, chapters 17-20.

An interesting rock at Carn Boel
Something went awry around 3200 BCE or not long after. Archaeologists are generally unclear about this, tending to gloss over the issue, portraying the whole of the Neolithic as a vague continuity.[1] But it was a big turning-point. From around 3200 to around 2900 BCE, megalith-building in Cornwall stopped – or we have zero evidence of it at that time.

Archaeologist Aubrey Burl gives the dates 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, according to this possibility.[2] 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 eastern Mediterranean caused a jolt in the earth’s magnetic field around 3150 BCE.[3] 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. Others speculate on a more general downturn arising from loss of land fertility or other social or ecological factors. It could have been a combination of 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. Something exceptional will have made the Mayans choose such a date as the start of such a long age. Another theory, arising from genetic and population research, suggests that people were struck by a pandemic coming from central Europe and the east.[4]

Whatever happened, there was a social-cultural and probably an environmental collapse, ending what had gone before. 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 environmental-climatic change, and if it was a pandemic it might have been catastrophic or slowly debilitating. We do not know. But there is sufficient smoke here to suggest a fire.

In Penwith it is likely that people were forced downhill, needing to focus on survival. Population growth and forest clearance declined for a period, and possibly forest growth too, though this situation will have improved again as time went on, as society and population revived. But there might have been a substantial decline of population in Penwith. Clearance was also 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 in the ‘true Neolithic’ of the mid-3000s, until the crisis came along. So it was something of a tragedy when Neolithic culture declined. This might have involved hardship and loss of life, or simply a difficult time and a long grind for Neolithic Penwithians, who 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 – though they were still limited in scope, number and area covered. 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 2000s proceeded, things gradually regained momentum and, from about 2500 onwards, new sacred sites were being built in Penwith, in many cases in newly-cleared spaces – though dates and sequences are vague here. By 2300ish, stone circles became the centre of attention and, while the tors continued as heritage places, they lost centrality and primacy.

[1] An exception is The Romance of the Stones, by Robin Payne and Rosemary Lewsey, 1999, p6.
[2] What on Earth Happened in 3200 BCE? Stanford Univ course material. and
[3] Knight, Christopher & Lomas, Robert, Uriel’s Machine, Random House, 1999, p72.
[4] An ancient strain of plague may have led to the decline of Neolithic Europeans, Science Daily, 6 December 2018.

The Late Neolithic

Carn Galva
The Neolithics had oriented and aligned quoits and stones to key astronomical points and terrestrial power points, but Bronze Age megalith builders took things further. They developed a more advanced mathematics that included knowledge of the phi ratio, the Golden Mean, Euclidian and Pythagorean geometry, together with eclipse prediction, knowing the dimensions of the earth, and understanding the precession of the equinoxes.

They also had new 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. Then, around 2500 BCE things began to change. As the culture of the time developed new ideas, a new class of sites gradually appeared across Britain. Archaeologists in Penwith tend not to date these sites earlier than 2500 BCE and they’re probably largely correct, but some revisions to this dating might be necessary. My suspicion is that the oriented stones, at least 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 wee bit spurious. Nothing happened? It raises questions: was this genuinely a quiet, underpopulated 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 we already know? Here we have a period with multiple questions needing answers. What happened in Penwith in the late Neolithic? And what sparked the subsequent Bronze Age revival?

Whatever is the case, new ideas and initiatives started gathering around the mid-2000s, giving rise to a wave of megalith-building with new styles, architecture, principles and scale. Now came the menhirs, stone circles, cairns, barrows and arrays of sites that eventually built up an entire system spanning the peninsula. It all began with a transitional period, roughly 2500 to 2300 – the Neolithic-Bronze Age (NBA) transition, also known as 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 – that is, Mesolithic Britons mingled with the inwardly migrant Neolithics of the 3000s. 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 thus mainly indigenous, though incomers could well have brought additional ideas, skills and impetus.

There’s a chance that the system of stone circles and menhirs in Penwith was built or started before the Beaker influx gained much traction – the problem is that construction dates are difficult to pin down. Perhaps the incomers arrived because Britain was seen at the time to be a vibrant and promising migrant destination. We simply do not know. The incoming Beaker people, especially those coming from central Europe and landing in SE England, partially descended from Yamnaya or Kurgan people of Ukraine and Kazakhstan (some think of them as Scythians), seemed to be more interested in building cairns and barrows than intricate stone circle complexes.

For people to migrate, there must be push and pull factors – otherwise there is every good reason to stay at home. Push factors can be population growth, environmental change, social friction or poverty, and pull factors can include fertile or relatively empty territory, or a vibrant, attractive culture experiencing good times and attracting inward migration. So early developments in the megalithic ascendancy could have drawn interest from Brittany, Iberia and Middle Europe. One thing seems to be true: the Beaker influx appears to have been relatively amicable, with no sign of armed invasion or social friction.

By the later 2000s the climate had warmed up, with fewer rainy, windy Atlantic depressions than today, and warmer summers and crisper winters. The 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 even though we don’t know much about their boats, there are many 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 the time was the Hebrides and Orkneys.

The late Neolithic saw the beginning of a different age and, by the late 2000s, Britain experienced 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 open spaces in Penwith’s lower lands that had not been there before. Around 20% of the land was cleared by 2500 BCE, and clearance accelerated from then on.

A new landscape was emerging 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 for this shift had built up during the late Neolithic and the NBA. By 2000 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 they didn’t know.

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