As far as historical research could establish, the first inhabitants of the British Isles were nomadic Stone Age hunters. They probably lived in the dry caves of the limestone and chalk hills. The palaeolithic population, unable with their rude stone tools to cope with the impassable woods and wild tangled bush growth that covered nearly the whole of the land, had to rely entirely on the bounty of nature. They must have lived on what the woods, the ocean and the rivers had to offer. When they finally passed over to agriculture the first farmers had to cultivate some arable patches on the slopes of downs converging on Salisbury plain. Historians refer to the original population as the Scots and Picts with whom newcomers started merging. It was the geographical position of the land that attracted the newcomers: the way of Mediterranean civilization across the North Sea to Scandinavia, rich in trade amber, lay straight from the Iberian peninsula between what later came to be Ireland and Britain. Those newcomers must have been a Mediterranean people. Their burial places in Cornwall, in Ireland, in the coastal regions of Wales and Scotland are found to be either long barrows, that is, man-made hills, or huge mounds covering hut-like structures of stone slabs.
Thus one is led to think of them as of very numerous and rather well organized people: tools more sophisticated than stone spades and mattocks do not seem to have been found in the archaeological excavations, so the newcomers must have been very good farmers to be able to feed a huge crowd of stone-hewers engaged in all those giant-like feats with only that primitive equipment at their disposal.
Among the suppositions made by historians and archaeologists about the Late Stone Age population of Britain, those of special interest to us concern the time (the time is usually given as around 2,400 B.C.) and the reasons of their migration to the British Isles from the Mediterranean areas, their territorial distribution there, the nature-of their civilization.
These people are thought to have settled on the chalk hills of the Cots-wolds, the Sussex and Dorset downs and the Chilterns. They were joined after a few centuries by some similar southern people who settled along the whole of the western coast, so that the modern inhabitants of Western England and Wales and Ireland have good archaeological reasons to claim them for their forefathers.
Their civilization as the monuments show was quite advanced, and the splendour of their burial arrangements can be taken as a sign of class differentiation. An Alpine race came to subdue them, however, about 1700 B.C. from the east and south-east, from the Rhineland and Holland. Historians refer to these later immigrants who settled in the east, south east and up the Thames Valley, as "the Beaker Folk" for they left a characteristic relic of their civilization, an earthenware drinking vessel called "beaker".
They are believed to have been powerful and stocky, they surely had a knowledge of bronze and employed metal tools and weapons. They gradually merged with the previous arrivals; in the Salisbury plain area evidence of both races was discovered, and the mixture was later supplemented by more arrivals, though never so numerous or important as those described.
A characteristic monument to this civilization, primordially rude and pri-mordially majestic, made mysterious by the clarity-obliterating centuries, is the so-called Stonehenge, a sort of sanctuary erected by the abovementioned fusion of peoples on Salisbury Plain about eleven hundred years B.C. or somewhat earlier. This circular structure, or rather semi-circular ruin as it is now, was formed by a mere juxtaposition of tall narrowish slabs standing so as to provide support for the horizontal slab, capping those perpendicular props for all the world like houses built of playing cards by infant architects reckless enough to disregard the seemingly precarious balance of the hanging stones - whence the name of the structure, the "Hanging Stones", Stonehenge.
The structure, however, proved to be quite durable since we are in a position to take pictures of it and wonder about its purpose after all these thirty centuries and more. The purpose was believed to be that of a place of worship, since the circular earthwork around the double horseshoe of the standing and hanging stones did not look like a fortification. The cult was guessed at, and the general supposition placed it as the suncult; the guess was supported by other historical evidence; the geometrical precision of the structure promoted later hypotheses associating it with astronomical observations. Both guesses may be close to the target, though, for the ancient priests were surely in need of astronomical data to control their less enlightened believers.
The thick dark oak and ash woods, thickets of bushes growing in tangled profusion on the damp clay soil made even the east and south-east lands that were not mountainous unfit for cultivation while all the implements the islanders had to combat the thicket and clear the arable land with were unwieldy stone axes or soft bronze ones. Probably, that was the reason why traces of earlier civilization are only found on the treeless slopes of Western downs. Iron tools appeared only after a new stream of invaders, tall and fair, poured from the continent, from what is now France and Germany. Whole tribes migrated to the Isles, warriors with their chiefs, their women and their children. The invasion of these tribes known as Celtic tribes went on from 8th-7th cc. B.C. to 1st c. B.C.
The first Celtic comers were the Gaels, but the Brythons arrived some two centuries later and pushed the Gaels to Wales, Scotland, Ireland and Cornwall taking possession of the south and east. Then, after a considerable lapse of time somewhere about the 1st c. B.C. the most powerful tribe, the Belgae, claimed possession of the southeast while part of the Brythons was pushed on to Wales though the rest stayed in what is England today, and probably gave their name to the whole country. Thus the whole of Britain was occupied by the Celts who merged with the Picts and Scots, as well as with the Alpine part of the population; the latter predominated in the West while the rest of the British Isles became distinctly Celtic in language and the structure of society. The Gaelic form of the Celtic dialects was spoken in Caledonia (modern Scotland) and Ireland, the Brythonic form in England and Wales. The social unit of the Celts, the clan, superseded the earlier family groups; clans were united into large kinship groups, and those into tribes. The clan was the chief economic unit, the main organizational unit for the basic activities of the Celts, farming.
This Celt-dominated mixture of Picts, Scots and other ingredients came to becalled Brythons, or Britts.
In their farming they used a light plough which merely scratched the surface of their fields: the latter therefore had to be ploughed twice, the second time cross-wise, hence the square shape of the Celtic field. The introduction of the iron axe opened up new possibilities; woods could be cleared and more areas put under cultivation. Later on, with the advent of the Belgae, the heavy plough was introduced, drawn by oxen, so the slopes of downs could be used only as pasture land, and fertile valleys cleared of forests could be farmed so