Prehistoric Wales

225000 BC

The earliest evidence of human beings in Wales dates from about 225,000 BC.

Image: Pentre Ifan. Crown Copyright: Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales

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The Pantheon in Rome

More information about: Prehistoric Wales

The earliest inhabitants

The earliest evidence of human beings in Wales dates from about 225,000 BC, the date given to human teeth found in Pontnewydd Cave in the Elwy Valley in Denbighshire. A series of Ice Ages meant that Wales was devoid of inhabitants during most of the subsequent millennia.

The most significant evidence of the presence in Wales of Palaeolithic or Old Stone Age people is the burial discovered in Paviland Cave in Gower. The bones were assumed to be those of a female and, as they had been coloured with red ochre, the skeleton became known as that of the Red Lady of Paviland. The skeleton is now known to be that of a young man and to date from about 24,000 BC. It represents the earliest example in Britain of a ritual burial.

The Mesolithic or Middle Stone Age (10000-4000 BC)

Continuous settlement of Wales by human beings began with the end of the latest Ice Age in about 9,000 BC. The melting of the ice cap caused sea levels to rise. Britain became an island and by about 5000 B.C Wales had attained roughly the shape it has today. As the temperature rose, the country became covered by a thick canopy of trees, the environment of the sparse Middle Stone Age or Mesolithic communities which inhabited Wales in the millennia following the retreat of the ice.

The Neolithic or New Stone Age (4000-2400 BC)

The Mesolithic communities lived by hunting and gathering, but from about 4000 BC there is increasing evidence of the existence in Wales of communities sustained by agriculture. These were the communities created by New Stone Age or Neolithic peoples who hacked out clearings for their crops using stone tools.

The most striking monuments of the Neolithic era are the stone chambered tombs or cromlechi. They are proof that Neolithic Wales had a fairly populous society with a considerable degree of organization. The distribution of the tombs suggests close contact along the western sea routes with Ireland, Brittany and Spain. The most remarkable of the chambered tombs of Wales is Barclodiad y Gawres (the apronful of the giantess) in Anglesey. Several stones within it are decorated with spirals, chevrons and lozenges, the earliest examples of art in Wales.

The Bronze Age (2400-700 BC)

By about 2400 BC, metal tools were becoming increasingly available. Traditionally, the metal users of the Bronze Age were considered to have been migrants to Britain, and the prehistory of Britain was portrayed in terms of wave after wave of invaders. The present tendency is to stress continuity rather than disruption and to maintain that Wales had received the greater part of its original stock of peoples by 2000 BC - a notion that seems to be confirmed by genetic studies. The standard of Bronze Age metalwork could be astonishingly high. Particularly magnificent is the cape discovered in Mold in 1833; believed to date from about 1500 BC, it was beaten out of a single nugget of gold.

The most intriguing aspect of Bronze Age Wales is the link between the Preseli Mountains and the Downs of Wiltshire. Sometime after 2000 CC, a circle of about eighty blue stones, each of them weighing about four tons, were erected at Stonehenge. They are believed to have been quarried from the rock of the Preseli Mountains. There has been has been much speculation about the way they were transported to the Wiltshire Downs, and about the motivation of those who transported them.

The Iron Age (700 BC-AD 48)

The earliest iron object discovered in Wales is a sword made in about 600 BC which had been thrown into the waters of Llyn Fawr above the Rhondda. Iron ore is the most common of the earth's ores and, once the process of smelting the ore was discovered, an almost inexhaustible source for the making of tools, weapons and equipment was available. The most characteristic construction of the Iron Age was the hill fort, of which Wales has over 600. Some of the largest of them contained streets of houses, proof that in the later prehistoric centuries the economy of some parts of Wales was capable of sustaining communities that bordered upon being urban.

The Celts

The evidence suggests that by the first century AD, the language spoken in Wales - and throughout southern Britain - was Brythonic, a Celtic language closely related to the Gaulish of Gaul. Other aspects of British society, its class structure, for example, and the beliefs and practices of its priesthood, are also considered to have had links with Gaul.

These considerations, together with the artistic style of the metal objects made in Iron Age Wales and Britain, gave rise to the notion that the inhabitants of Wales in the last centuries of prehistory were members of a Celtic 'nation' which occupied a great swathe of Europe from the Danube Valley to Spain.

While there is no certainty about the way in which much of Britain became Celtic-speaking, the fact that it did is of central importance in the history of Wales. Brythonic evolved into Welsh, and the existence of the Welsh language would be, for 1,500 years and more, one of the defining features of the experience of the people of Wales.

The druids

Of all the aspects of the culture of the Iron-Age Celts, the one that has attracted the greatest attention is the role of the druids. Interpreting druidism is difficult, for the druids refused to commit anything about their beliefs and rituals to writing, and modern inquirers are obliged to rely on the accounts of the classical authors who have a tendency to concentrate upon the ghoulish, the bizarre and the malign.

The essence of druidism seems to have been a kind of pantheism, and links have been discerned between it and some aspects of Hinduism. The correct performance of ritual was central to the religion, and the prescribed pattern of ceremonies presumably constituted the greater part of the twenty-year training undertaken by an apprentice druid. Human sacrifice was practiced. When the druids of Anglesey were attacked by the Romans in AD 61, their altars, according to the Roman historian Tacitus, 'were drenched with the blood of prisoners'.

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