The archaeological record shows that the Cornish peninsula was inhabited as long ago as the Paleolithic period, but the evidence of these earliest inhabitants is scanty. The first substantial archaeological sites date to the Mesolithic period and suggest a hunting and gathering population. This life-style was supplanted during the Neolithic period by the more sedentary practices of farming and animal husbandry, and it is to this period that the first monumental construction in the Region belongs. The Cornish landscape is dotted with a great many "quoits" (also called dolmens and cromlechs) that are believed to have been chamber tombs. These distinctive structures consist of large upright stones topped by a large flat stone. Later arrivals to the area (approximately 1800 B.C. ) were the "Beaker folk," who migrated from the European continent and brought with them a particular style of pottery and more elaborate burial practices. More important, these newcomers introduced mining and smelting to the area, Beginning Cornwall's long association with tin mining that continues to this day. It is, however, with the arrival of the Celts from their homelands in eastern Europe, in the final centuries B.C. , that we find the beginnings of what was to become the Cornish language. These Celtic settlers are also the likely source of the nonnucleated pattern of settlement that characterized Cornwall for most of its history.
The Roman invasion of Britain appears to have had little practical impact on the inhabitants of Cornwall. No Roman towns have been found further west than Exeter, so it seems contact must have been limited to trading and tax-collecting visits. However, the arrival of the Romans marked the Beginning of Cornwall's economic and political incorporation into the larger entity of England as part of the Roman Empire. When Roman rule ended in the fifth century A.D. , the trajectory of Cornish development once again diverged from that of the rest of England: each area faced invasion, but while the interlopers in eastern and southeastern England were of Germanic descent, in Cornwall the invaders were settlers from Ireland. Anglo-Saxon influences eventually did expand westward, but it was not until near the end of the tenth century that Cornwall was wholly incorporated in the political rubric of the newly united kingdom of England, and its county border was set at the Tamar. Never again would Cornwall or the Cornish people regain political independence. It is to this period that the Arthurian legend—originally a tale of a strong Cornish king who would free his people from English rule—may be dated. Arthurian sites include the River Camel, from which comes Camelot, and most importantly the castle of Tintagel, where Arthur is said to have been born.