Prehistoric Ireland

Prehistoric Ireland

The last Ice Age came to an end in Ireland about 10,000 BC. Human occupation of Ireland began about 7000 BC and the earliest humans are believed to have migrated from Britain to Ireland.

Ireland at the end of the last Ice Age

The most recent period of continuous human occupation in Ireland lags behind the rehabitation of most of Europe following the Last Glacial Maximum (LGM) (25,000 to 15,500) years ago. During much of the final Pleistocene period following the LGM much of northern Ireland was covered by glacial ice, making the climate inhospitable for most European animals and plants. During the period between 15,500 and 10,000 BCE a warming trend and a cool periodallowed the rehabitation of northern areas of Europeby nomadic hunter gatherers. Genetic evidence suggeststhis reoccupation began in the southwestern Europeand faunal remains suggest a refugia in Iberia thatextended up into Southern France. The originalattraction to the north during the pre-boreal (period) would be species like Reindeer and Auroch. There is now evidence for sites as far north as Sweden >10,000 years ago and some suggest that humans used glacial termini as places from which they hunted migratory game.

These factors and the changed ecology brought humansto the edge of most northern European ice free zones by the onset of the holocene and this included regionsproximal to Ireland.

There is no evidence that humans occupied Ireland at this time, but on the eastern side of the Irish Sea one site dated to the 11th millennium BC was discovered that indicated people were in the area eating shellfish and other marine diet. It is possible that humans did occupy the region but found few resources outside of coastal shellfishing and acorns and did not continually occupy the region.

As the northern glacier retreated, so did sea levels rise with water draining into an inland sea where the Irish Sea currently stands; and the outflow of freshwater and eventual rise in sea level between the Irish and Celtic Seas inhibited the entry of flora and fauna from Europe via Britain. As a result only 28 wild faunal species exist in Ireland relative to 55 in Britain; and no large mammal species. Of these 28 some authors speculate a few were introduced later by humans.

Ireland's Early Holocene and Early Mesolithic

Human reoccupation of Ireland begins before 7000 BC and the earliest humans are believed to have migrated from Scotland to Ireland. These earliest settlers can be attributed to a mesolithic culture that reinhabited Britain after the LGM and show a preference for a diet rich in marine foods with evidence of shellfish consumption. Archaeological studies indicate Ireland was reinhabited from the North from Scotland, but because this colonizing took place as sea levels were rising earlier sites in the St. Georges Channelcannot be ruled out.

Genetic studies of the mtDNA and HLA alleles & haplotypes suggest that these inhabitants might have migrated north from Southern, Western France or Northeastern Iberia and that the modern Irish population retains genetic marker frequencies indicating a marked isolation relative to the rest of Europe. The HLA Class I (2 A and 4 B alleles and 8 haplotypes) suggests a subpopulation spread over a large region of western and northern Europe existed during the early Holocene of Europe, this population included primary ancestors of the Irish (>35% of this group), Welsh, Cornish, Basque, Scandinavians, Swiss, English and Germans(>20%). One of these haplotypes A1-B8 (14.3% in Irish) is part of larger disequilibrated haplotype "Super B8" A1-Cw7-B8-DR17-DQ2 (DRB1*0301:DQA1*0501:DQB1*0201) appears to be of African origin via Iberia and to have undergone positive selection, a population bottleneck before expansion, or both. This haplotype may have conferred resistances to diseases within the LGM/coastal environment of SW France/NE Iberia, and is the highest frequency haplotype found in any population in continental Europe. The relative frequency of this haplotypemay have been higher in the early Holocene as it appears to be under slight current negative selection (see below).

Ireland's Final Mesolithic and Early Neolithic

Background. Many areas of Europe entered the Neolithic with a 'package' of cereal cultivars, pastoral animals (domesticated Oxen-Cattle, Sheep, Goats), pottery, housing and burial cultures, that arrive simultaneously, a processthat begins in central Europe as LBK (Linear Pottery culture) about 6000 BC within several hundred years this culture is observed in Northern France. An alternative neolithic culture, La Hoguette culture, arrived in France's western region appears to be a derivative of the Ibero-Italian-Eastern Adriatic Impressed Cardial Ware culture (Cardium Pottery). The La Hoguette culture, like the western Cardial culture, more intensely raised sheep and goats. Genetic evidence (HLA Class I) indicates theprobability of gene flow in Western Europe this period that originates in sub-Saharan Africa with a unique African allele Cw16 in linkage disequilibrium within a larger A29-Cw16-B44 haplotype.

By 5100 BC there is evidence of dairy practices in S. England and modern English cattle appear to be derived from "T1 Taurids" that were domesticated in the Aegean regionshortly after the onset of the Holocene. These animals were probably derived from the LBK cattle. Around 4300 BC cattle arrived in Northern Ireland during the late mesolithic period, followed by Red Deer. Around 3800 BC a Neolithic package that included cereal cultivars, housingculture (similar to those of the same period in Scotland) and stone monuments arrived in Ireland. This follows a pattern similar to Western Europe or gradual onset of Neolithic, such as seen in La Hoguette Culture of France and Iberia's Impressed Cardial Ware Culture. Cereal culture advance markedly slows north of France, certain cereal strains such as wheat were difficult to grow in coldclimates, however barley and German rye were suitable replacements. It can be speculated that the DQ2(A1*05) aspect of th "Super B8" haplotype may have been involved in the slowing of cereal culture into Ireland, Scotland and Scandinavia since this haplotype confers susceptibility to a Triticeae protein induced disease as well as Type I Diabetes and other autoimmune diseases that may have arisen as an indirect result of Neolithization.

Some regions of Ireland showed patterns of pastoralism thatindicated that some Neolithic peoples continued to move andindicates that pastoral activities dominated agrarian activities in many regions or that there was a division of labour between pastoral and agrarian aspects of the Neolithic.

Ireland's Late Neolithic

The late Neolithic period of Ireland and England see the rise of Beaker Pottery in the later 3rd and early second millennium BC (~4000 years ago). The end of this period (1600 B.C.) witnessed an increase of Continental Beaker styles indicative of the entry of the Early Bronze Age to the island.

Bronze Age

The Bronze Age properly began once copper was alloyed with tin to produce true Bronze artifacts, and this took place around 2000 BC, when some Ballybeg flat axes and associated metalwork was produced. The period preceding this, in which Lough Ravel and most Ballybeg axes were produced, which is known as the Copper Age or Chalcolithic, commenced about 2500 BC. Copper used in the manufacture of bronze was mined in Ireland, chiefly in the southwest of the country, while the tin was imported from Cornwall in Britain. The earliest known copper mine in these islands was located at "Ross Island", at the Lakes of Killarney in County Kerry; mining and metalworking took place there between 2400 and 1800 BC.

One of the most distinctive types of European pottery, Bell-Beaker ware, made its appearance in this country during the Bronze Age, often associated with the first appearance of Indo-Europeans.

Iron Age and the arrival of the Celts


*Waddell, J., "The Celticization of the West: an Irish Perspective", in C. Chevillot and A. Coffyn (eds), L' Age du Bronze Atlantique. Actes du 1er Colloque de Beynac, Beynac (1991), 349-366.
*Waddell, J.,"The Question of the Celticization of Ireland", Emania No. 9 (1991), 5-16.
*Waddell, J., 'Celts, Celticisation and the Irish Bronze Age', in J. Waddell and E. Shee Twohig (eds.), "Ireland in the Bronze Age". Proceedings of the Dublin Conference, April 1995, 158-169.

Arias, J. World. Prehistory 13 (1999):403-464."The Origins of the Neolithic Along the Atlantic Coast of Continental Europe: A Survey "
Bamforth and Woodman, Oxford J. of Arch. 23 (2004): 21-44."Tool hoards and Neolithic use of the landscape in north-eastern Ireland"
Clark (1970) "Beaker Pottery of Great Britain and Ireland" ofthe "Gulbenkain Archaeological Series", Cambridge university Press.

McEnvoy et al., Am. J. Hum. Genet. 75 (2004):693-704
Finch et al., Exp. Clin. Immunogenet. 14 (1997):250-263
Williams et al., Hum. Immunology. 65 (2004):66-77


[ Ask about Ireland, Flora and fauna]
[ The Flandrian: the case for an interglacial cycle]
[ Ireland's history in maps : Ancient Ireland]
[ Dairying Pioneers: Milk ran deep in prehistoric England]

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