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[The True Origins of Irish Society Copyright © 2003 by Desmond Keenan
Hard copy of book available from and]

Chapter Three

                      The Development of Neolithic Culture

Summary. The term Neolithic describes the period before the use of metals when stone tools were used but when agriculture began to be practised. The origins of farming in the Ancient Near East is described, and its spread westward until it reached Ireland a few thousand years later.


Characteristics of the Neolithic Period

Origins of Farming in South West Asia

The spread of the Neolithic cultures to 5,000 BC

Peoples, Languages, and Social Structure

Early Neolithic Age in the British Isles

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Neolithic Culture 

Characteristics of the Neolithic Period 

In the first chapter the origins of the human race, the course of the last Ice Age and its ending, the dispersion of the white race and the repopulating of Europe following the retreat of the ice, the character of the Palaeolithic peoples during the Ice Age, and of the Mesolithic peoples after the Ice Age were described. This chapter describes the various changes which came about in the Middle East from about 9000 BC onwards, the discovery of techniques of farming, the use of metals, the invention of pottery and bricks, of weaving and writing, and so on, and how these skills spread to many parts of the world and led to a considerable increase in population, and how Ireland was populated by these Neolithic farmers

The name Neolithic is a traditional one but misleading. Early archaeologists distinguished between sites where only stone tools were found and those where remains of bronze, or bronze and iron, and called the three historic ages the Stone Age, the Bronze, and the Iron Age respectively. The classification remains broadly useful. Later the Stone Age was divided into the Old Stone Age or Palaeolithic period, and the New Stone Age, or Neolithic, and this division too remains broadly useful. Palaeolithic was restricted to cultures before the end of the last Ice Age. Later, divisions into the Mesolithic, or Middle Stone Age, and the Calcholithic, or Copper/Stone Age where some remains or metal objects made of copper were found, were added. In general, the term Stone Age denotes a time before the use of metal. But it does not mean primitive. In Egypt great buildings were erected and figures carved on stone without the aid of metal. Harder stones were used to shape and grind softer ones. (No section has been devoted to the use of copper, but some remarks about it will be found in the next chapter on the Bronze Age.

In time Neolithic came to be associated with the farming and herding cultures, and Mesolithic used to describe the post-glacial pre-farming cultures. This explains why the Mesolithic and Neolithic cultures existed side by side. By Neolithic is now meant pre-metal farming cultures. It is divided into three stages, Pre-pottery, Pottery, and Calcholithic, indicated by the presence or absence of bits of pottery, or pieces of copper. This distinction is chiefly useful in South West Asia as elsewhere farming and pottery may have arrived at the same time. The term Neolithic embraces every culture from the earliest farming communities, to the highly developed city and temple cultures of the Ancient Near East, and the great Megalithic cultures of Western Europe, only distinguishable from the Bronze Age by the absence of metal.

            . These developments included the domestication of animals, the development of techniques of agriculture, the training of the dog, the donkey, and the horse to perform useful tasks, the invention of brick and pottery, the invention of the wheel, the invention of netmaking and textiles, the invention of writing, the development of warfare, the development of large-scale organisation and control of populations, the development of ideas of religion and philosophy. Apart from anything else, these permitted the enormous growth in numbers of the human race.  Herding and farming permit the selection of seeds and animals best for a particular climate, can increase the areas in which they can thrive, and increase their yields by techniques such as working the soil, weeding, and irrigation. The introduction of bronze did not produce significant changes. Neolithic society kept on developing on then traditional lines. Nor did the introduction of iron result in any significant change. The use of iron was not to make major changes before the nineteenth century AD when it became available in prodigious quantities. There was a continuous line of development from the first farming settlements to the development of great cities and empires like those of Greece and Rome.    Though the Neolithic period was characterised by long string of inventions and discoveries these were spread over a period of several thousand years, so the changes were almost imperceptible. A discovery in one part of the area might not reach a remote part for a hundred years. On the other hand, a century was just a tenth part of a millennium. Some inventions like the used of metal apparently spread very rapidly, and the whole of Europe and the Middle East made acquainted with the new techniques in less than fifty years. Small groups of travelling smiths who kept their trade secrets to themselves would have been responsible for the rapid diffusion of the techniques. In principle, there is no reason why the art of writing should not have been known in Ireland within fifty years of its development in the Near East. But if it was known in Ireland no evidence of this fact survives.

            This leads to another point. Given that knowledge could be disseminated fairly rapidly why did the urban civilisation as it developed in the Middle East not spread north of the Alps and into Russia at an earlier date? Apart from those planted artificially by the Romans cities did not develop in northern Europe and Russia until after 1,000 AD. The Neolithic and Bronze Age societies in Russia and Northern Europe developed along different lines. The pastoral economy of the steppes perhaps did not favour city life, but why did cities not develop along the Danube where a sufficient density of population could have built up on the fertile lands? The Greeks developed cities along the northern shores of the Black Sea after 500 BC, but the interior of Russia was unaffected.

            There were in later Neolithic times a broad range of cultures as each group took some elements from what was available and adapted them for its own use, and rejected others. In some regions building with brick and stone was not adopted and building with timber continued until after 1,000 AD. Not only in northern Europe, but also in China and Japan with highly developed cultures, timber construction remained the preferred mode. In central Africa the original grass huts remained in use in places until the present day. In Ireland when the great burial mounds were being built, we may assume that the more learned classes had a fair idea of what was being done elsewhere in Europe and in the Mediterranean and the Middle East. Their information by our counting may have been a century out of date but they would have known where to get the relevant experts if they required them. Had they needed writing experts they could have obtained them. They would have been in the same position as the Irish monks in the early Christian period some 3,000 years later. Travel to and from the Continent and the exchange of ideas was probably easier then than in the later period when every local chief along the way had to be bribed to allow free passage.  

The Mesolithic period lasted for several thousand years in Northwest Europe but it lasted for a comparatively brief span in South West Asia. Just as there is one human race which spread throughout the world commencing about 50,000 years ago in the latest stages of the Ices Ages, so there is only one Neolithic culture which commenced in the Ancient Near East, during the last retreat of the ice, commencing about 10,000 years ago (Some American scholars argue for a separated development of farming in the Americas, but certainly, with regard to Europe, Asia, and Africa, there was only one place and time of development.) All Neolithic cultures are thus connected, and derived from a common source. This can be regarded as broadly true for all aspects of the culture, ideas and beliefs, as well as material discoveries and inventions. The Neolithic culture (and the Megalithic culture) in Ireland are essentially the same as the Neolithic cultures of the Middle East, but the earliest surviving written records from the latter region are thousands of years older than those from Ireland.[Top] 

 Origins of Farming in South West Asia

            Part of South West Asia is called the Fertile Crescent from the crescent-shaped area of fertile lands in the river basins of the Nile, the Euphrates, and the Tigris. All the great early civilisations, Egypt, Mesopotamia, India, and China, were formed on the fertile soils of the great rivers. But it would seem that farming did not originate in the river valleys themselves but in the mountains in Iran and Iraq above the river valleys.

            The Mesolithic Natufian culture that centred on Palestine in the post-glacial period is famous for its stone sickles that were used for harvesting wild cereals. The culture is named after an excavated site in Palestine near Mount Carmel. This culture has been dated around 10,000 BC. All dates before about 5,000 BC contain an inaccuracy of 300 years either way as carbon-14 dating, though better than nothing, are inaccurate before that date. Sites are being constantly re-dated, but the general sequence of events remains largely unchanged (Renfrew)

            Nevertheless it would seem that animal herding commenced around 9,000 BC, and this is taken to mark the commencement of true farming with continuously occupied villages (Laing, L. and J. 101ff). It developed somewhere between the southern shores of the Caspian Sea and Jericho in southern Palestine and was for a considerable time confined to that area. Planting and reaping of crops followed soon after, certainly within a thousand years.  The villages of Jarmo in northern Iraq and Jericho in Palestine vie for the title of the earliest farming village.  Sun-dried bricks were used to construct a shrine at Jericho about this time, and not long afterwards great brick walls were constructed around it for defence. As Hawkes remarked, it was astonishing how quickly the new farmers developed towns. The earliest occupations of both Jarmo and Jericho antedate the making of pottery. Farming techniques before the manufacture of pottery by baking clay had been invented may have spread as far west as Thessaly in Greece. At Jarmo they possessed stone bowls, finely ground and polished axes and adzes, sickles and querns. They grew emmer, einkorn wheat, and barley. They kept sheep, goats, oxen and pigs (Hawkes op. cit 224). With the invention of pottery (c. 6500 BC) and weaving we have the complete list of Neolithic characteristics, tillage, herding, polished axes and hoes, pottery and cloth. Linen cloth has been dated to 7,000 BC. The first use of metals, gold and copper, has been dated to 6,900 BC, and curiously it appears about the same time in South East Asia and among the Danubian tentative attempts at farming. [Top]

The spread of the Neolithic cultures to 5,000 BC

            It has now been established by genetic studies that the population of Europe at the present day is essentially the same as it was in the Palaeolithic period. It follows that agriculture spread chiefly by imitation and teaching, and not by the spread of a new incoming population

            The farming revolution was confined for a while to the area within which it was first developed. Then it spread out into Egypt and the Aegean. By 4500 BC it had reached most of central Europe, and had spread along the Mediterranean to Italy, Spain, France, and the British Isles, and in a northerly direction into southern Russia. The diffusion of ideas proceeded in waves, first the pre-pottery techniques, then early pottery styles. (The techniques of agriculture, etc. were introduced into China, but were adapted by the local population. This was obviously the case in Africa as well).

            This spread was largely caused by imitation by the Mesolithic peoples.  But there were two other factors involved. One was that outside the fertile and irrigated lands of South West Asia the fertility of the light cultivated soils quickly became exhausted, so in places like the Danube basin communities periodically uprooted themselves and moved elsewhere. But even without the exhaustion of the soil, when a community grew too large for the light tillable soils to support, the community could send out a colony of young men and women to find and work lands of their own. Agriculture enabled a given tract of land to support a much denser population.

            The other cause of the diffusion of the techniques was the search for raw materials and with it the growth of trading. These materials might be flints, or semiprecious stones, or pieces of natural pure gold or copper, or ivory, or various rocks to make pigments. When a source of supply was found a settlement was likely to be formed.

            The pattern of life and many of the crafts practised then were continued in many parts of Europe up until recent centuries. Not all areas colonised were suited to the cultivation of Near Eastern cereals and in these the tending of animals became more important. In Europe cattle and swine became more important than the original sheep and goats. There was local pottery-making, spinning and weaving, basketry, tanning of leather, the shaping of leather for clothes, the growing of crops, the herding of animals, milking, cheese-making, brewing, and baking. Primitive ploughs were made from crooked branches; the antlers and shoulder blades of animals used as shovels; Boats made of skins over a framework replaced the dugout canoes. By 3000 BC the wheel arrived in Western Europe.


Danubian and South West Russian farmers            The winds in glacial times spread wind-blown loess soils across central Europe that proved admirable for the spread of farming. The loess soils along the Danube were easily worked but there were many of them, so the farmers could always move on when the initial fertility of the newly farmed land declined. This they apparently did every 25 years or so. They built substantial houses. The advance of farming populations continued on into northern France and southern Scandinavia where they settled as neighbours to the Mesolithic Ertbølle people for several centuries. As the farming culture spread into North Western Europe a characteristic form of pottery with engraved lines known as linear pottery or Bandkeramik spread with them.

             Another stream of the farming culture spread from the lower Danube into southern Russia. This was called the Tripolye culture. This was, as has been noted, a stream of culture, not a movement of population, though doubtless there was some movement of peoples.


Mediterranean farmers            Farming arrived comparatively late in Egypt and indeed after the invention of pottery. From the Levant or eastern shores of the Mediterranean, farming spread into Egypt and along the North African coast, and at the same time, along the north shores of the Sea, through Anatolia and the Aegean to southern Italy, and the east coasts of Spain. It has been noted by Hawkes  (p. 238) that in the course of this spread, some elements of the Neolithic revolution got left behind (for example weaving did not reach Britain), but also some elements like pottery and ground axes were adopted by the Mesolithic inhabitants before they started to practice farming. The northern branch of this Mediterranean spreading was the more important as far as Western Europe was concerned, but pottery fragments show also an Egyptian influence. (This may not be unimportant when we consider the spread of megalithic culture. Later still the Egyptian form of monasticism reached Western Europe through Rome and Marseilles, rather than the Syrian form.) The earliest wave had simple impressed pottery, but a later wave had a distinctive painted pottery. These waves spread along the coasts, and from island to island. From southern France they advanced up the Rhone valley, and up the Atlantic coast of France until they met the Danubian farmers coming overland.

            The earliest farming in Western Europe seems to have arrived from the direction of the Mediterranean. The economy consisted of mixed farming with emphasis on cattle breeding. Sheep, goats, and pigs were also kept; emmer, einkorn, wheat, and barley were cultivated. They had a dark-surfaced, undecorated pottery of simple rounded forms. 

Russian or Pontic herders        The Neolithic developments spread also into southern Russia directly through the Caucasus and not via Anatolia and the Danube. From the coast of the Black Sea they spread up into central Russia. It would seem that agriculture reached northern Europe from Russia through Poland, though there were also influences from the Danube. In both Russia and northern Europe, as elsewhere, a preponderant element of the Mesolithic peoples survived. A characteristic of these northern peoples was the use of a stone battle-axe, which was modelled on a bronze original. By the time the northern cultures had developed the Bronze Age had arrived in southern Europe and the Middle East. This particular branch of the spread of farming is mentioned, for it is from this region that the Indo-European speakers fanned out. These herders gradually became able to sustain themselves from the produce of their herds, especially on milk products, so tillage except in favoured spots became unimportant. It seems too that among them the horse was first domesticated. The further east one went, the less was the rainfall, the poorer the grass, and the greater the need to keep moving the flocks and herds about. The Greeks called such peoples nomads.

            There are some points to be observed about the pastoral culture of the steppes. Pastoralism does not support as dense a population as tillage. Consequently the steppes are rather thinly populated. The use of the horse enabled them to combine in large numbers for particular purposes such as a raid, and this gave the impression that they are very numerous. When they conquered other peoples, very few of them settled in the conquered districts, and are within a few generations absorbed into the local population.


Western Europe and Britain         The Neolithic Age lasted in the British Isles for about 3000 years, from the arrival of the first farmers about 5000 BC until the arrival of the Beaker Folk with bronze goods about 2000 BC. The first date marked a clear break in culture; the latter did not. The Neolithic way of life continued virtually unchanged for millennia to come, though as centuries passed bronze weapons and utensils were increasingly used without necessarily displacing the stone ones. The presence of bronze on a site just allows the archaeologist to date it more accurately.

            About 5000 BC, as the temperatures in the post-glacial period reached their maximum, in the warm wet Atlantic period, the farming culture arrived in Western Europe. It came into France and Britain from the south, i.e. from the Mediterranean. At the same time the expansion of the Danubian farming culture reached the Low Countries. But it was the southern stream which first crossed into the British Isles. About the same time the builders of the megalithic structures arrived in Brittany. What the connection there might be between these streams is not obvious. There is this difference; farming is found everywhere but megaliths are not. They are also found in areas like Denmark, where Danubian influences were prevalent. Both the Danubian and the Mediterranean streams came originally from the eastern Mediterranean. One followed the coasts of the Mediterranean; the other the valley of the Danube, avoiding the mountains. Archaeologists detect some Egyptian and other North African traits in the Mediterranean stream. It would seem that Britain was still connected to the Continent by a land bridge over which the first farmers crossed. Ireland was probably already an island but with a relatively narrow and smooth sea-crossing making it feasible to transport small animals in primitive boats. [Top]

Peoples, Languages, and Social Structure.


Population       Farming spread from South East Asia. But this spread of techniques was far from simple; there were various movements in different directions at different times that included some movements of population. Most recent studies have shown that the basis of the present population of Europe derives from the Mesolithic peoples and that farming spread much more by imitation than by movements of population. Among the Mesolithic peoples, especially in the more northerly parts of Europe, would have been the survivors of the Cro-Magnon people. Basically, the people of Europe today are the descendants of those hardy people who weathered the Ice Age along the shores of the Mediterranean, and moved north as the ice retreated and vegetation and wildlife returned.

Languages          There were probably several languages in South East Asia, where farming originated. We know of at least one, Sumerian, which is unconnected with other languages. Etruscan too may have come from Asia Minor. Some think that Basque was the original language of the Neolithic farmers. It is possible, and indeed probable, that as Europe was re-populated after the Ice Ages, that the language or languages spoken in the Mediterranean and North African region spread northwards as the ice. This would have been earlier than the development of the so-called Hamito-semitic that probably originated about the eighth millennium BC, and probably in the Sahara. But the fact remains that all languages spoken in western Europe except Basque are derived from Indo-European, and the indications are that the latter spread outwards from southern Russia after 3000 BC.

Society   It would seem that the social structure of the early Neolithic farmers was in one way very simple yet in another way quite complex. Society consisted of small independent communities of perhaps 50 or 60 people who formed a village, and farmed the locality for a period of up to 25 years before moving on. We can reasonably assume that all the members of the village were closely related and all recognised a particular man as their common ancestor, though the actual relationships between individuals could have been second or third cousins.  They did not place much emphasis on shelters or elaborates structures for themselves. Most of their lives were lived outdoors. The houses themselves were often but not always flimsy shelters. Like African grass huts they were probably used only at night or when it was raining. Up until modern times people mostly lived outside their houses. Work was done outside, and likewise cooking. The climate in Western Europe in any case was much warmer than at present.

There was at first no personal ownership of the land or the animals, but they belonged to the group (Hawkes 263ff). But it would seem that ownership gradually transferred to the related family kinship. In some places large communal dwellings were preferred; in others villages were composed of small huts (ibid.). Ownership of the land would have been allodial, i.e. it was owned absolutely by the individual or group who had hacked the farmland out of the wilderness. The early farmers removed the forest cover of much of Europe.  This was long before the feudal theory that everyone had to have some form of tenancy from a superior lord. Even in later times when conquest of land was usual the land still belonged to those who tilled it and lords merely acquired rights to various dues or exactions. This was the common rule among the Indo-European peoples.

So long as the land was cultivated by hoes this work would have been done by the women, and rights in land passed through the female line. The women were also probably responsible for spinning, weaving, and making pottery, and indeed had probably invented those skills. Men would have been responsible for managing the animals, for hunting and fishing, and for clearing the forests. They too were probably the carpenters who built the houses

In many ways the cashless society resembled later monasteries. All control and the distribution of all rewards was in the hands of the head of the family This meant that sons of the chief, especially younger sons, were entirely dependent on their father all their life for whatever he saw fit to give them, the clothes on their backs, their share of the food, what they received as personal adornments.  When landholding was transferred to the smaller extended family there were many more heads of families, though the control and distribution still remained with the head of each family. Even in recent time when the holding of land passed to the head of the nuclear family, sons were entirely dependent on their father for food, clothes, and cash unless they could demean themselves to act as agricultural labourers. Knights in the Middle Ages were totally dependant on their fathers for food, clothing, weapons, etc. until they could acquire a piece of land through service to a lord.

Gradually the room for moving was restricted as the population increased, so each community had to occupy a given area and move their tillage around it in rotation. Even so villages could be several miles apart, separated by woods, marshes, and other wastelands. The sites of the Neolithic period were for the most part undefended, though Jericho, exceptionally, had walls almost from the beginning. (These walls of Jericho fascinated the early archaeologists. Joshua and the Israelites advancing from the desert in the Bronze Age had to capture the walled city before they could occupy the Promised Land. He probably succeeded by undermining the walls, masking the sound of digging by the blowing of trumpets -Joshua 6. Irish tribes never mastered the art of storming a walled city.) There were no doubt quarrels over water or grazing (Genesis 13.7) but later on systematic warfare developed.

On the other hand they probably met the other groups at fairs during the year, and in the developed Secondary Neolithic phase co-operated with them in constructing great earthworks. But simple co-operation was all that was required for these. In true Neolithic cultures there seem to have been no chiefs, or overlords or rich persons, but it is possible that towards the end of the period one chief would be selected to be the headman or chief in several villages, but with inheritance through the female line (Hawkes 268f). This co-operation could extend over a considerable area, and enable large, prolonged, and complex works to be undertaken

When chiefdoms, aristocratic societies, organised cities, and rich graves appear we are on the brink of the Bronze Age, the age of warfare.   

Religion       We have no idea what the religion of the early farmers was like. It is safe to assume that there were rites connected with the various phases of the agricultural year. These rites would have been a development of earlier seasonal festivals and of shamanistic rites. At what stage the elaborate mythologies like those of Tammuz appeared we have no idea. It is likely too that there were elaborate religious rites connected with the great burial tombs. If there were rites there must have been an accompanying system of beliefs; myth and ritual always go together. The myth explains the rite; the rite makes the myth effective.

The religion of the early Neolithic period seems to have been a development or continuation of the Palaeolithic religion. Clay models of a female figure are still found suggesting a preoccupation with fertility. Some have interpreted this as an indication that the dominant deity was a female Mother Goddess, antecedent to the male senior gods of the later pastoral peoples (Hawkes and Woolley 334ff). But it is doubtful if the concept of male and female deities had emerged at this time. But to survivals from Palaeolithic times there seems to have been added a cult of the dead. This feature was to become very pronounced in the Chinese culture and survived in Europe to be transformed in Christian times into the feasts of All Saints and All Souls on the first and second of November. [Top]


The Early Neolithic Age in the British Isles (4,500 BC to 3,500 BC)

Earliest Wessex farmers

As mentioned above farming arrived in Britain from France when the two were still connected before 4500 BC. It would seem that the very earliest stream was from the direction of the Mediterranean, but shortly afterwards Danubian influences can be traced. They practised slash-and-burn agriculture, and set about clearing the forests that covered the chalk downs in southern England. The trees were either felled with stone axes, or killed by ring barking. The forests never recovered on the downs largely because of the grazing by sheep and goats. They brought with them domesticated sheep and goats, pigs cattle and dogs. Their cattle and pigs were interbred with the local wild cattle and pigs so that the appearance of the animals differed little from those in cave art. The only breed which has remained unchanged since then is the Soay sheep, short-tailed, with a short hairy brown fleece (Henson 3f).  Cattle and pigs are natural forest animals that would be turned out to browse on the scrub. Sheep and goats can graze wetlands and bogs without destroying them. The farmers planted emmer wheat and einkorn, but over time pastoralism became more important. As the communities were small and the forests large, the flocks would have to be moved about in the forests, though probably in a fairly limited area. They constructed small huts and barrows. They traded with the Mesolithic hunters who had not yet adopted agriculture (Stover and Kraig 42ff).

The density of population was still very low. The village was shifted every ten to fifteen years, and long fallows allowed the best soils to recover fertility. The loss of fertility was largely caused by the depletion of nitrogen, but prolonged fallows allowed sufficient nitrogen to be washed from the sky over a number of years. The clearance of land by burning produced potash. Anything between two and twenty acres were needed to support an individual. Farming groups as elsewhere probably numbered between 35 and 70 individuals. But on good soils the lands held by each group were contiguous (Renfrew 148ff)

Neolithic Farming in Ireland

By the time the Neolithic culture arrived in Ireland it had been developing for thousands of years. The first farmers in Ireland were not people with only the rudiments of knowledge. They possessed the skills and techniques and the knowledge developed by their forefathers. They were almost immediately able to display their skills in the construction of the great megalithic monuments.           

Three phases can be distinguished in the Neolithic period in Ireland as in the rest of Western Europe. The first was the initial phases when the first farmers commenced clearing the forests, pasturing their cattle, and growing their cereal crops. The second, or mature phase, corresponded with the period of the great earthworks and megaliths, when there was a considerable population and some form of developed social organisation. The final phases was marked by the introduction of various features that were to be prominent in the Bronze Age, the period in which, in some ways, the ancient civilisation reached its climax in Ireland.

There is nothing peculiar about the Neolithic period in Ireland. It was the same as in the rest of Western Europe. Dense forests and scrublands covered the whole island. Though the Atlantic period was well advanced, the great forest cover which absorbed much of the rain meant that boglands and marshes were less of a problem than they became later. Bellamy notes that they fed their cattle on the leaves of the nutrient-rich elm, then ring-barked the trees to kill the canopy to let the sunlight on to the grass and perhaps their crops. Cows are forest animals, and are browsers on leaves rather than grazers of grass. Cereals were cultivated Grasses and nettles and weeds like plantains typical of cultivated areas appear. The almost indestructible pollen in the bogs indicates their presence. As the fertility of the soil declined the cultivated patch was abandoned and a new one cleared by burning. Elm, pine, oak, and alder declined while hazel and birch increased. These latter formed scrub as the farmers moved on to the next patch of forest. This clearing had a catastrophic effect on the forest soils that had been accumulating for 4,000 years. A change to a wetter climate in the Atlantic phase, and the removal of tree cover led to a leaching of the soil, and to the formation of an impervious iron pan beneath the surface. The result in the wetter parts was a widespread covering of blanket bogs (Bellamy 92ff).

 There was a plain shouldered pottery, kite-shaped arrowheads and hollow scrapers of flint and chert. Axes were made from igneous rocks in Antrim. The initial period, i.e. before the megalithic period, probably lasted from 4500 BC to 3500 BC

The People of Ireland

We have seen that Europe was re-peopled after the last retreat of the ice by the descendants of the Homo Sapiens people who were the hunter-gatherers in the Upper Palaeolithic period. These Mesolithic peoples were thinly scattered over Europe and some few came to Ireland. For some millennia after their first arrival in Ireland communication by traders or explorers for raw materials was relatively easy from Ireland to the Near East. The likelihood is that a single language and a single religious culture covered the entire area, both derived from North Africa like the population.  There were no mass migration of whole peoples, successive waves massacring all their predecessors, as earlier historians imagined.  The population of Ireland today, like the population of Europe, consists substantially of the descendants of the first Neolithic farmers and the Mesolithic hunter-gatherers. The Neolithic farmers who came to Ireland were themselves descendants of the Mesolithic hunter-gatherers of Western Europe. (Genetic testing shows that the author is descended from a woman who lived the Camargue region of southern France about 20,000 years ago.)

We have no idea however who the first farmers in Ireland were or how the farming culture arrived in Ireland. We know that in Europe in general the bulk of the present day population is descended from the Mesolithic hunter-gatherers, and that farming techniques spread largely by imitation. The land bridge between Ireland had Scotland was probably broken in Mesolithic times (Mitchell 63ff). But whether the Mesolithic population in Ireland had died out before the Neolithic period or not it does not matter much. For the Neolithic farmers, like their predecessors, would have come from Britain. The technical means for a large number of people to sail directly from the Continent to Ireland did not exist before the Spanish armada; the Norsemen depended on settlements all along the coasts of Scotland; even the Danes, whose nearest settlements were on the east coast of England, rarely appeared in Ireland. The population of Ireland is substantially the same as that of Britain.

Neolithic Culture in Ireland

We are now in a position to pull together the various strands of evidence to get a picture of life in Ireland in early Neolithic times. As there was no Irish race distinct from other races the culture in Ireland was the same as in Western Europe. What we know about Neolithic society and culture in Ireland is largely conclusions drawn from archaeological investigation in Ireland and in the rest of the world.  There are no written records or inscriptions from the period, either because the art of writing was unknown or because nothing was written on imperishable substances.

The agricultural or Neolithic revolution took a long time to spread to Ireland. The slowness of the spread of agricultural techniques was cause by the fact that a population of hunter-gatherers had to learn and adopt a wholly different lifestyle.  But once within the area of Neolithic culture other inventions and discoveries spread more rapidly to Ireland. So scarcely more than seven hundred years passed before the arrival of the first farmers and the development of a full-blooded megalithic culture.

The warm wet forest and bog producing climate in the Atlantic period 6500 BC to 2730 BC covered most of the Neolithic period in Ireland. It had two temperature optima, one about 5000 BC and the second about 3000 BC. The cooler, dry Sub-Boreal period covers the Bronze Age in Ireland.

The first farmers would have followed the contemporary practice in Europe, clearing patches of woodland or scrubland by the use of fire and by ring-barking the trees. (See above under Wessex Farmers and Neolithic Farming in Ireland)  When the fertility of the forest soil was exhausted after several year of cropping another likely patch of forest was cleared. Not all soils were able to regenerate when left fallow. In many parts, especially in the wetter west bogs developed. But where the soils were naturally fertile the population could grow. Life could be lived at much higher altitudes than would be comfortable or feasible today. It is not clear how much of the land at lower altitudes was inhabited. Bogs had not yet formed, but poor drainage over much of Ireland would have led to marshy lands unsuitable for cultivation, but very suitable for cattle-rearing. A very great part of the soil that is tilled in Ireland today is the result of very extensive field drainage systems put in place in the last few centuries. In the preceding centuries, even if there were open drains around the fields the natural crop was rushes. In many parts of Ireland to this day, even with undersoil drains the natural vegetation is still rushes. Tilling the fields was done by women using hoes; the men looked after the animals. In the earliest period there were groups of people, all living more or less the same kind of life, with a senior figure as leader or chief. There was little distinction regarding wealth. The seems to have been no elaborate system of religion, and their beliefs were probably much like what has been described in the Palaeolithic Period

The climate was warm so there was little need for elaborate houses or shelters.   As in Africa today, shelter was need chiefly against the rain. Life was lived outdoors. The organisation of society and the holding of lands was doubtless the same as that of their contemporaries. The same can be said of their religious beliefs [Top]


Copyright Desmond J. Keenan, B.S.Sc.; Ph.D. ;.London, U.K.