Who are the Cornish?

It is largely now accepted that Britain has been systematically farmed and settled since the Neolithic Era (Malone, 2001, p11). The implication is that a network of settlements and system of land organisation was in place by the end of that period, and it follows that any settlements and significant topographical features would have had names applied to them by then. It is not much of a stretch to suspect that at least some of these settlements had names relating to prominent individuals or deities and that some at least were transmitted orally down to later generations (Gardiner, 2012).

Bowen (1972, p.31) and Cunliffe (2013, p.171) both place Cornwall and the Cornish as an ethnographic group firmly at the centre of Neolithic, Bronze Age and Iron Age culture and trade based on archaeological and monumental evidence, and given the strong evidence for this hypothesis no one has hitherto seriously refuted it. However, there has been a lack of clarity regarding the origin of the Cornish as indeed all other insular Celtic peoples. Origin theories are still very much a topic for discussion, three of which will be touched on here in order to provide some necessary context.

Until the 1970s the so-called invasion hypothesis was popular as a mechanism for explaining the arrival of Celtic language(s). Dillon & Chadwick (1967, p.214) suggested that the arrival of Bronze Age culture was coincident with an invasion by the Beaker People.

Problematically, this hypothesis required separate events for:

  • Introduction of Celtic-languages by invasion from the East c.2,400 BC in Britain and Ireland and co-incident with the start of the Copper working, and,
  • Previous farming related invasion(s), which pre-dated Celtic-languages occurring c.5,000 BC.

It is no longer seriously contended that there was an ethnographic group of Beaker People, and instead the term Beaker Culture is used [Ref Pending: The Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles; Their Nature and Legacy by Ronald Hutton, 1991].

Subsequently, Gimbutas, Skomal, & Polomé (1987, p.13) suggested several waves of cultural expansion (The Kurgan Hypothesis), where Indo-European languages spread from the Pontic Steppe c.6,000 BC, ultimately leading to a linguistically Indo-European Britain, supplanting the original post-Ice Age culture and language. These waves of expansion, by implication, were independent of the spread of agriculture.

More recently an alternative Anatolian Hypothesis has been advanced by Colin Renfrew, in which Proto-Indo-European emerged alongside farming and spread from Anatolia much earlier (from 9,000 BC onwards). In this model Indo-European languages, and by extension Italo-Celtic and eventually proto-Celtic ‘diffused’ across Europe, with farming being the vehicle for language transmission and vice-versa. The Atlantic Seaboard was a principal gateway to Britain, with Cornwall and Brittany playing a major role in the transfer of material and non-material culture.

None of this greatly affects a model for proto-Celtic or proto-Brittonic or as far as this study is concerned, but it links the people and places in Cornwall with the people subsequently to become identified as Cornish, and places both in the context of Celtic Britain.

In summary, not only was Cornwall a recipient of cultural transfer between the insular and continental worlds but also was an instrument in it, and in laying down the foundations of proto-Brittonic in South-west Britain.

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