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Mesolithic 8000 to 4000 BC

Hunters and Gatherers

Climate and vegetation changed rapidly after 8000 BC. From cold grassland and patches of birch woodland, the fuller wildwood of oak and hazel with some elm and lime had developed by 6000 BC. Upland areas, even during the forest maximum, had only sparse tree cover with grassland covering the highest and most exposed parts.

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Sometime after 5500 BC Britain became separated from the continent by the rising sea; before this it was the north-westernmost extremity of a land mass that stretched east to Siberia and south to the Mediterranean. Cornwall at that time fits into a general 'Southern English' tradition of semi-nomadic hunting bands. In winter they hunted amongst the lowland woods, in summer, they followed the grazing herds onto their upland pastures; in spring they caught fish in the rivers and from boats at sea, and along the coast hunted seals and gathered crustaceans, shellfish, edible plants and seaweeds. Bushes and trees provided abundant berries, nuts and fruits in the summer and autumn. This was a way of life intimately bound up with the natural world: a world of woodland animals and birds, of the beaver, the red deer, wolf, bear and wild ox; a world regulated by the seasons - campsites abandoned when the herds moved on or the fish run was over; shelters, perhaps tents or teepees, made from hide stitched together with sinew or gut; fires for roasting meat and hardening wooden points; sheltered hollows in which to make the tools and equipment so necessary to the hunter - armatures (arrowheads, speartips etc) made from flint, fish spears from bone, and wood, nets from vegetable fibre, bags from skins, grinding stones for vegetable and dyestuff preparation; mocassins and clothes made from hard wearing but supple hides and skins. The raw materials were found close by; flint from beach pebbles around the coast, washed up from submarine chalk deposits (only rarely imported from South Devon and beyond); wood from the forest, skins and bone from the animals they hunted.

Towards 4000 - 3500 BC hunting bands began to use their environment more purposefully; burning woodland to flush out game and encourage the growth of lush pasture; the partial domestication of animals, similar to the relationship that Laplanders have with their reindeer today.

We have little physical evidence for this early period of Cornish prehistory, except for the scatters of imperishable flint and stone tools and waste flakes marking camp sites. The rising sea has covered many of the favoured coastal campsites, but in some areas (eg. around Gwithian, Trevose Head and the Padstow estuary) we can, through examining flint scatters in the ploughed fields, still catch a glimpse of a way of life familiar to us through early accounts of travellers amongst the Native Americans.