Jaime Conrad


 

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5 Ways Life in Neolithic Wales Changed the Land Itself

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By: Jaime Conrad
Posted in: Ancient Wales
5 Ways Life in Neolithic Wales Changed the Land Itself

I wrote this for my blog yesterday and, in the process, learned some really fascinating things. Sharing for anyone else who loves a bit of ancient history!

Neolithic Wales was a time of transformation. During this era, the nomadic hunter-gatherers who lived in ancient Wales were mostly wiped out or absorbed by immigrant farmers from the Mediterranean an event that changed not only the way people lived but the landscape of Wales itself. 

The time period we refer to as “Neolithic Wales” began in approximately 4000 BC and lasted until 2400 BC. Archaeologists also call this the Neolithic period or the “New Stone Age.” It wasn’t just that the inhabitants of Britain began farming or using stone tools at this time that brought about a change. It’s more about how and why this transition came about. 

About 6000 years ago, there was a migration of farmers from the Mediterranean to the British Isles. These farmers were the ancestors of the people living in what now is Turkey. When they arrived in Britain, these prehistoric European agrarians found a small population of hunter-gatherers already living on the island, and both groups soon integrated.

The incoming farmers, however, brought with them not only greater numbers in terms of their population size but also better tools and more advanced ways of doing things. Hence, the “New Stone Age” began. They mingled with and eventually mostly absorbed the hunter-gatherers into their own group. The more primitive people learned to farm, raise animals for food, and build homes to live in permanently rather than roam the land. 

New People, New Ways, and Megalithic Monuments

Before the New Stone Age, Neolithic Wales’ people were hunter-gatherers who moved from place to place and found shelter where they could. They built temporary dwellings and stayed in caves or other suitable places. These nomadic peoples looked distinctly different from modern Welsh people, with medium brown to black skin and hazel, blue, or blue-green eyes. 

The Mediterranean farmers who migrated to ancient Wales around 4000 BC were also dark-complected with medium brown skin and dark brown hair and eyes, according to data collected from archaeological finds. Research suggests that they didn’t mix well with the inhabitants of Britain and, within a short period, wiped most of them out. 

Some of the decline of the existing population could have been due to new diseases being introduced. There’s also evidence that the takeover may have been a violent one. In some places, the hunter-gatherers and farmers may have co-existed peacefully. At least a small portion of the hunter-gatherers must have integrated, as some people in Wales today carry DNA that traces back  10,000 years  to the last Ice Age.

Farming in Wales in the New Stone Age

By about 3500 BC, many people in Neolithic Wales were farming. In wooded areas, they cleared forests and used the lumber to build wooden houses. Beyond their villages, they cleared additional land where they could plant their crops. 

The farmers grew wheat, barley, beans, peas and flax. They ground the wheat and barley into flour. They used the flax plant to make linen cloth for clothing, a versatile addition to furs and animal skin garments. However, they continued to find certain plants by foraging, like berries, nuts, and mushrooms.

Another thing these Neolithic farmers in   ancient Wales   did differently than the hunter-gatherers was the amount and kinds of animals they kept. They raised cattle, sheep, goats, and wild pigs that they domesticated. All of these provided meat, but the cows also gave the farmers milk and cheese. The farmers could produce cashmere from the goats’ fleece and, of course, wool from the sheep. They also kept dogs as pets and guardians to protect them against some of Neolithic Wales’ animals, such as wolves and wild boars. Dogs also worked the farms, herding sheep and cattle.

Neolithic Wales’ history is significant because these early farmers shaped and changed the land into what it is today. By clearing trees for growing crops, making grazing areas for livestock, or luring game animals, the soil’s nutrient levels fell over time. The earth also became more acidic. In these conditions, plants such as heather, gorse, and coarse grasses thrived. As the heathland was also being constantly used, it never turned back into woodland, giving much of Wales the landscape it has today. 

Grave Mounds and Stone Circles

The people of this period built stone structures for religious purposes and to honor their dead properly. Cromlechs, cairns, and stone circles are among some of the megalithic structures that tell us more of their story. 

Cromlechs are tombs made of several upright stones with a flat stone laid on top of them. The stones were then covered over with a mound of earth, with the inside being left hollow. There are other meanings of the word “cromlech,” but the above definition is the one that most applies to Wales. 

A cairn is a mound of stones covering a burial chamber, such as a cromlech, or a cairn could be laid directly over graves beneath the earth.  

Stone circles came later in time than cromlechs. Stone circles of varying sizes were often erected around cairns. Sometimes, they may have been constructed to denote places of worship and other times to mark areas for meeting and trade.  

Neolithic Sites: Wales’ Incredible Burial Chambers

Wales is home to many examples of the megalithic structures above, some remarkably well-preserved. Some of these include Bryn Celli Ddu, Lligwy, Parc le Breos, Carreg Coetan Arthur,   Bodowyr , Dyffryn Ardudwy, St Lythans (“Gwal y Filiast” in Welsh, which translates to “Kennel of the Greyhound Bitch”), and Pentre Ifan Burial Chambers.

Pentre Ifan, for example, dates back to about 3500 BC. It is perhaps the largest and one of the most intact of Wales’ Neolithic portal tombs. A “portal tomb” is a burial chamber with two large stones on either side of an entrance. A huge “capstone” (stone placed on top) is then laid across the upright stones. Portal tombs are also called “dolmans.” In Pentre Ifan’s case, the capstone is thought to weigh close to 16 tons. For that reason, it has a third upright stone supporting it from the back. Even though it appears precariously balanced, the monument has stood firm for the last 5000 years.

There are also similar Neolithic sites in Scotland and elsewhere in the British Isles. One of the most famous and insightful examples of a Neolithic stone house built in a place where wood was scarce is  Skara Brae  in Orkney. 

Click here for a  map of ancient sites in Wales Cadw  (Wales’ Historic Environment Service) and  Amgueddfa Cymru  (National Museum Wales) are also excellent resources for ancient artifacts, prehistoric finds, and many fascinating historical gems from Wales’ past. 

Timeline

Neolithic Wales’ timeline spans from roughly 4000 to 2400 BC. This means it began 3000 to 3400 years before the ancient Celts set foot on the island.

4000 BC : Waves of farmers from the area near the Aegean Sea arrive in Britain.

3500 BC : Many people in Wales and across the British Isles are now farming and raising livestock. They also made simple pottery and established more permanent settlements.

3300 BC : Early builders erect some of the first henges and stone circles.

3000 BC : People construct some of the first passage graves. More land is cleared for farming as settlements spread.

2400 BC : The Beaker People arrive in Wales. Metalwork improved with the introduction of bronze, and more sophisticated tools and weapons were developed.

The Neolithic Period for this region drew to a close when a second wave of farmers—the group we now refer to as the “Beaker People”—immigrated to the British Isles. They came from Europe around 4400 years ago, mainly from the Eurasian Steppe (grassland extending about 5000 miles from present-day Hungary to Manchuria). The Beaker People are so-called because of the bell-shaped pottery they made. Their newer technologies of crafting weapons and tools from bronze marked the beginning of the Bronze Age in Britain. 

Neolithic Wales: Facts of Note

In summary, 5 significant ways life changed for people in Wales during the New Stone Age were:

  1. Agriculture replaced the hunter-gatherer lifestyle, meaning people could now establish more permanent dwellings and live together in growing communities.
  2. Over time, farming and animal husbandry altered the land by depleting the soil’s nutrient content and making it more acidic. The landscape went from woodland to cropland and eventually to heathland, which covers many parts of Wales today.
  3. Keeping herds of cattle meant not only a plentiful meat supply but also that milk and cheese became staples in the diet.
  4. Growing flax meant that linen cloth could be spun to make clothing. This durable, breathable, and easy-to-care-for fabric was a considerable advancement over garments made from animal hide.
  5. Because people now lived in communities, they built stone structures to honor their dead, worship, meet for ceremonies or trade, and sometimes act as astronomical observatories. Bryn Celli Ddu, for example, is aligned to the midsummer sunrise. Many of these megalithic monuments were built before the great pyramids of Egypt!

If you’re a fan of ancient artifacts, archaeology, and megaliths, you may enjoy visiting some of Wales’ most intriguing places.  The Old Stones of Wales  is a helpful field guide from a series that covers these historic sites in the country.

Ceri Shaw
02/24/24 02:01:54AM @ceri-shaw:

Many thanks for posting Jaime. Will comment in full once I have had a chance to read and digest :)


Jaime Conrad
02/25/24 03:33:09AM @jaime-conrad:

You're most welcome! Thank you for letting me post on here!