General History, Pre-Historic Ireland

The first known people in Ireland

The first known people in Ireland

Niall C.E.J. O’Brien

This article searches for the outline of Irish prehistory and the elusive first known people to live in Ireland.

First evidence of people in Ireland

Ancient Irish history, that it, for history before 750 BC, is divided into four chief periods of human habitation. These four periods are: Palaeolithic (meaning Old Stone Age), Mesolithic (Middle Stone Age), Neolithic (New Stone Age) and the Bronze Age. The earliest period is the Palaeolithic which in Irish history is anything before 8000 BC. In European history the Palaeolithic is time before 12,500 BC.

The difference in time zones between Europe and Ireland has to do with the progress of technology across the Continent and the lack of progress in archaeological investigation within Ireland. Much of the archaeology done in Ireland over the past twenty years has been rescue archaeology in the face of new road construction or building projects. Only a small minority of these archaeological digs published reports and so our access to new knowledge is further restricted. Few archaeologists get to go out and explore the landscape and investigate the ancient sites with new technology.

Palaeolithic period (before 8000 BC)

It is said that a substantial part of southern Ireland was ice free towards the end of the last Ice Age. The existence of humans in this part of Ireland was therefore possible but up until the year 2016 the presence of humans was restricted to a few flint tools without the human touch. Indeed many commentators dismissed these flint tools as not reliable evidence that people had settled in Ireland.[1] The problem with the flint tools was that many were found along by the sea shore and so they were out of context as regard proper dating. It was shown by further investigation that some of these flints were not found in situ and had instead arrived at their discovery location by glacial movement (Mell quarry near Drogheda) and misinterpretation while others were just naturally shaped stones (Rosses’s Point, Co. Sligo).[2]

Searches in caves in the south of Ireland seemed to find promise. This region was ice free in the last ice age and so humans could have lived there. A human skull found in 1928 at Kilgreany Cave, 5 miles from Dungarvan, was interpreted as Palaeolithic man owing to its location near animal remains from the ice age. But further investigation in 1934 found that the skull was buried in a pit dug down into the Palaeolithic layer. Later radiocarbon dating found the skull to be Neolithic, sometime between 3000 to 2500 BC.[3]

Thus the search went on for evidence of that elusive human touch. In the meantime plenty of evidence was found to show that reindeer, bear, fox, wolf, Irish hare and the giant Irish deer (the so-called Irish elk) lived amongst the open tundra areas and the birch trees. By about 9000 BC, it is assumed, that the Irish deer had become extinct. There was a partial advance of the ice sheets in the period 9000 to 8500 BC and land bridges connecting Ireland to Britain and Britain to Europe increased in area or were re-established.[4] The cold and competition from more favourable areas across these land-bridges could have contributed to the deer’s extinct.

The Clare bear and the first humans

Yet in this climate more akin to modern Greenland humans did indeed walk the land of Ireland. In 2016 a kneecap of a bear, that was found in 1903 in a cave in Co. Clare and which rested in a cardboard box in the Natural History department of the National Museum of Ireland, was examined by Dr Marion Dowd, an archaeologist at IT Sligo, and Dr Ruth Carden, a research associate with the National Museum of Ireland. The bone displayed cut marks that were not natural and radiocarbon analysis gave it a date of 12,500 years ago (c.10400 BC). The bone was sent to a three different experts to examine but they were not told that the radiocarbon date. Each expert in turn returned to say the cut marks were made by a Palaeolithic flint knife.[5] Ireland’s earliest humans were found and in the southern part of the country. Further research into caves may turn up even more exciting discoveries.

BearBone014JC

Dr. Marion Dowd with the bear bone

Up until the discovery in Co. Clare the early humans in Ireland were said to be Mesolithic people beginning about 8000 BC.[6] Even a recent academic paper, published in 2016, that discussed the Palaeolithic period in North-West Europe which included countries like the United Kingdom, France, Spain, Belgium, Netherlands and Germany but excludes Ireland from the study.[7] The importance of the County Clare discovery is therefore of national and international importance. It simply puts Ireland on the Palaeolithic map.

Yet there may be other places besides caves to search for early humans.

Ice Age and sea level rise

The last Ice Age began to end about 11000 BC with the start of the Holocene warm period. The retreat of the ice and snow was aided by temperatures which were 1 or 2 degrees higher than today. In this warm period the Irish giant deer made his presence.[8] In most of Europe this period saw the start of the Mesolithic while the Near East was moving into the Neolithic.[9]

In about 9000 BC a short-lived but cold period occurred in which the deer failed to survive. In about 8000 BC temperatures again increased in what is called the Littletonian period and this period is still with us.[10]

The snakes and the end of the land bridges

In these centuries it appears that Ireland was still connected by one or more land bridges with Britain. In those times it was possible to walk from south Kerry to Brittany. The melting ice caps released much stored up water and began a process of a rise in sea levels. The last of the land bridges disappeared sometime before 6000 BC when Ireland became a true island.[11] It was at about 6000 BC Britain also lost its land connections with Europe and also became an island. Leaving out the story of St. Patrick ridding the country of snakes, the evidence of the snakes in Britain and not in Ireland would suggest that Ireland became an island before Britain.

The ending of the land bridges was caused by Lake Agassiz in North America. By 6000 BC this lake was at its greatest size, created by ice sheet meltwater. The lake was held back by an ice sheet dam which slowly gave way. A great flood came out through Hudson Bay and spread across the Northern Hemisphere. It covered Dogger Land and separated Britain from Europe and Ireland from Britain.[12] After 6000 BC sea levels continued to rise until about 3000 BC when they reached present-day levels.[13]

ireland-maps-historical-ice_age

Map of Ireland in the time of the Ice Age

The Mesolithic settlement at Mount Sandel in County Derry was dated from c.7010 BC to c.6490 BC and so existed before the land connections were lost.[14] By 7000 BC Ireland was free of ice. Today many archaeologists and historians date early Mesolithic Ireland from 7500 BC to 6000 BC and later Mesolithic from 6000 BC to 3200 BC.[15]

Much of the North Sea was dry land and low marshy ground before 6000 BC. It is out in the Dogger Bank, under the sea, that fishermen are bringing up many Palaeolithic remains.[16] The search for Ireland’s early Palaeolithic evidence may not just be in caves but also be found under the Irish Sea or the waters off the south coast.

Earliest human activity found

Having found evidence of activity of Palaeolithic humans in Ireland is a major achievement but the search continues for other remains and to understand the evidence so far gathered. In this regard, any evidence that we find may only be partial evidence. We could find more bones or flint tools but the timber bowls, bird traps and eel traps of Palaeolithic humans will have long disappeared. Their clothes and shelter will also be long returned to nature. Of course the Clare bear is only evidence for the earliest humans in Ireland – actually finding a Palaeolithic person is something still to be achieved and hopefully not in the too distant future.

Unanswered questions

Knowing that humans lived in Ireland in about 10400 BC is one thing – trying to answer the many questions they left behind is another. What language did they speak, were the caves they used religious or secular in function and were they the same people who we find in the Mesolithic period or did they leave the country during the cold period of c.9000 BC?

 

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[1] Flanagan, L., Ancient Ireland: Life Before the Celts (Dublin, 2000), p. 16

[2] O’Kelly, M.J., ‘Ireland before 3000 B.C.’, in Ó Cróinin, D. (ed.), A new history of Ireland, Vol. 1: Prehistoric and Early Ireland (Oxford, 2008), p. 57; Harbison, P., Pre-Christian Ireland: From the First Settlers to the Early Celts (London, 1988), pp. 17, 18

[3] Harbison, P., Pre-Christian Ireland: From the First Settlers to the Early Celts (London, 1988), pp. 17, 18

[4] O’Kelly, M.J., ‘Ireland before 3000 B.C.’, in Ó Cróinin, D. (ed.), A new history of Ireland, Vol. 1: Prehistoric and Early Ireland (Oxford, 2008), pp. 54, 55

[5] Dowd, M., ‘A remarkable cave discovery’, in Archaeology Ireland, Vol. 30, No. 2 (Summer 2016), pp. 21-25 https://www.academia.edu/30818511/A_remarkable_cave_discovery_first_evidence_for_a_late_Upper_Palaeolithic_human_presence_in_Ireland (accessed on 15th January 2017)

[6] Flanagan, L., Ancient Ireland: Life Before the Celts (Dublin, 2000), p. 16

[7] Herisson, D., and others, ‘The emergence of the Middle Palaeolithic in north-western Europe and its southern fringes’, in Quaternary International (2016), pp. 1-40, at pp. 2, 4  = https://www.academia.edu/31788596/The_emergence_of_the_Middle_Palaeolithic_in_north-western_Europe_and_its_southern_fringes accessed on 19th March 2017

[8] Harbison, P., Pre-Christian Ireland: From the First Settlers to the Early Celts (London, 1988), p. 18

[9] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Holocene accessed on 27th February 2017

[10] Harbison, P., Pre-Christian Ireland: From the First Settlers to the Early Celts (London, 1988), p. 18

[11] Harbison, P., Pre-Christian Ireland: From the First Settlers to the Early Celts (London, 1988), p. 18

[12] Television programme, Time Team Special 51 (2013) Britain’s Stone Age Tsunami https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3EPNZWBk7i8&t=865s accessed on 27th February 2017

[13] O’Kelly, M.J., ‘Ireland before 3000 B.C.’, in Ó Cróinin, D. (ed.), A new history of Ireland, Vol. 1: Prehistoric and Early Ireland (Oxford, 2008), p. 55

[14] Harbison, P., Pre-Christian Ireland: From the First Settlers to the Early Celts (London, 1988), p. 18

[15] O’Kelly, M.J., ‘Ireland before 3000 B.C.’, in Ó Cróinin, D. (ed.), A new history of Ireland, Vol. 1: Prehistoric and Early Ireland (Oxford, 2008), pp. 55, 65

[16]Television programme, Time Team Special 26 (2007) Britain’s Drowned World https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4P9wQj6qX2I&t=2780s accessed 16th March 2017

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