Pentre Ifan Burial Chamber © Crown Copyright (2008) Visit Wales

1: 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 BC 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 organisation. 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 six hundred. 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.


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