Who were our original ancestors? In this article, John Michell
offers his view of Britain's earliest inhabitants, their life cycles
and how their activities millennia ago have an effect on us, even today.
The Original Britons by John Michell
England, about 10,000 B.C., was occupied by groups of nomadic people, each group ranging over a particular region and living on the natural resources of its territory. These people lived well and made so little impression upon the earth that what chiefly remains from their time is the debris of their feasts. Feasting played a large part in their lives. Following the necessary fast of early spring (correseonding perhaps to our Lenten fasting), they began the yearly ritual journey around their country. As nomadic people have always done, they took the accustomed routes and stopped at familiar places. Some places were for gathering herbs or nuts, others for hunting a particular game. At certain places other traveling groups were regularly encountered, leading to ceremonies and exchanges of gifts which later became festivals and markets.
Thus, from the very beginning of their history, the sacred places of a country accumulate a wide variety of lore and custom. The paths they took, the places where they stopped, and the locations of episodes on their journey form the sacred geography of the nomads. Other places are scenes of mythical adventures, where a divine ancestor did some heroic act which ever afterward has been commemorated there. It was no doubt by a similar process that certain British landmarks first became associated with the prototypes of Arthur, Merlin, and other native heroes.
This picture of Mesolithic or Middle Stone Age life in Britain emphasizes its most essential nature, the intensely spiritual relationship between people and landscape. It shows how successfully the ancient people communicated with the local spirits of the country and how well they were able to live as a result. Dr. Richard Muir ("Reading the Celtic Landscapes," 1985) gives detail to the picture:
As long as these hunting and fishing folk did not upset the natural
balances, each valley. strand and late basin could sustain a clan of
hunter-gatherers which migrated around an eternal circuit, harvesting
each resource which the changing seasons provided. There were
salmon in the rivers, eggs to be gathered on the sea cliffs, fish, seals
and stranded whales along the coast and limpets on the rocks, while
the rich woodlands harboured wild cattle, deer and horses. fungi, fruit.
roots and shoots. To live well under the Mesolithic economy, one
needed to have an intense awareness and understanding of nature,
know the habits and behaviour of the intended prey and when each
edible plant would release its fruits and where it could be found.
All that survives of Mesolithic craftwork are the beautifully formed flint implements known as microliths, which include saws and delicate arrowheads. These fine objects were
exchanged as gifts between tribes and have often been found far from their original sources.
The pattern of life at that time was closely in accord with the pattern of human nature and with the requirements of human spirit. Every aspect of life was celebrated. This was the innocent Golden Age yearned for by poets, the Garden of Eden or lost paradise. People felt secure in their own country, a sacred landscape inhabited by familiar spirits each of which was visited in the course of the annual pilgrimage. Though it has left scarcely any physical mark upon the landscape, that way of life laid the foundations of native culture, which rest in the sacred places of the country. Certain spots, where the old British nomads gathered at the shrine of some nature spirit, are now marked by cathedrals and churches. Many have retained sacred and legendary associations from the old times. Thus the basic pattern of the English landscape, still discernible beneath its modern accretions, was laid down in times before settlement as a network of sacred centers with pilgrimage paths between them.