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Chapter ThreeChapter FourChapter FiveChapter SixChapter SevenChapter Eight

Chapter NineChapter TenChapter elevenChapter TwelveChapter ThirteenChapter Fourteen

Chapter FifteenChapter SixteenChapter SeventeenBibliography

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

Chapter Two

               Early Man

Summary. Describes early man in Europe during the last Ice Age, and the physical changes which marked the ending of the Ice Age. There are no indications of the presence of man in Ireland in the Palaeolithic Period, but there are of Mesolithic peoples. This culture is described. Questions. of dating and chronology are discussed


Glacial Epoch to 13000 BC

Post-glacial from 13000 BC


Glacial Epoch to 13000 BC

The Ice Ages

This chapter deals with the origin of man, his spread throughout the world during the last Ice Age, the distribution of the white race and the repopulating of Europe following the retreat of the ice. Men did not arrive in Ireland before the end of the last Ice Age but had been living in other parts of the world long before that.

The Pleistocene, or early Quaternary period, was marked by frequent and severe oscillations in climate. In the colder phases or glaciations huge masses of ice covered large parts of the globe. In the warmer phases the ice caps retreated. The last glaciation ended abruptly about 15000 years ago. In the succeeding post-glacial period up to the present there were lesser fluctuations, and for a considerable part of that time annual temperatures in Ireland were considerably higher than at present (King 180ff) The surface of the earth was depressed by the enormous weight of ice. At the same time much of the water in the sea was locked into the ice so that sea-level fell. Britain and Ireland were joined to each other and to the continent of Europe so that it was possible to walk from the continent to Ireland. The sea reached its lowest level about 13000 BC (Mitchell 43ff). This fall in sea-level also allowed man to reach America from Siberia on foot.

The icesheets were not a continuous unbroken mass and their extent varied from glaciation to glaciation, and from time to time within each glaciation. Icecaps formed first in the mountainous regions and spread outwards in all directions. There was a great Scandinavian ice cap that covered much of northern Europe. There was another great ice cap covering the Alps and surrounding areas. These two ice sheets did not meet. Lesser icecaps formed on the mountains of Scotland, Wales, Ireland and England. At their greatest extent these joined with each other and with the Scandinavian one. In Ireland the various ice caps moving out from the various ranges of mountains did not always cover the whole of the southern part of the country. But even where the ground was not covered with ice little vegetation could grow (Freeman, 26ff; Mitchell 23ff)

South of these icesheets were cold grasslands and scrublands, which supported the mammoth, the bison, the antelope, and other animals which were hunted by the contemporary humans.

Earliest Man

It is not necessary to describe the ancestors of man in the course of the Ice Ages before the arrival of modern Homo Sapiens. Those inhabiting Europe towards the end of the last Ice Age are usually called Neanderthal man or Neanderthaloids. This latter classification refers to their physical shape and not to their material culture which was Mousterian. At first they lived in the open, but as the cold increased during the Würm glaciation they took to living in caves. They had stone tools, were skilled hunters, and used fire and clothing.

End of Ice Age; Cave Art

Homo Sapiens split off from the parent stock perhaps about the same time as the Neanderthal line about half a million years ago, but as it seems not to have used flint tools we know little of its history. They probably were not very numerous, and confined to Africa, until about 50000 BC they rapidly developed a new culture with new techniques for making flint tools. About the same time occurred their spread world-wide. About 36000 BC, when there was a land bridge to Australia they arrived in that continent. They may have reached America before 20000 BC. When this spread was occurring during the last Ice Age it must be remembered that not only did ice not cover the middle latitudes of the globe, but the rain-bearing westerlies brought rain to areas like the Sahara and south east Asia which are now desert. As the levels of the seas were lower, and Homo Sapiens probably spread along the coasts, the tracks of their migration are probably under the sea.

The humans in all these cultures belonged to the modern Homo Sapiens; what happened to the Neanderthals we do not know. All palaeontologists are agreed that there is only one human race at present and the different varieties, the Caucasoids, Negroids, Mongoloids, Bushmen, Australian aborigines, etc. all belong to the same stock and are all classified as Homo Sapiens. The Caucasoids are distinguished by their fair skin and wavy hair, the Negroids by dark skin and curly hair, and the Mongoloids by straight hair and olive, yellow or bronze skins. All the people in Ireland (excepting recent immigrants from outside Europe) are descended from the Caucasoid branch of Homo Sapiens.

The Caucasoids themselves were distributed from the Ireland to central Asia and the border of Burma, and from the Arctic region to the Sahara desert. The branch includes not only all European peoples, but also those of North Africa, South West Asia, and most of India. (In Europe they are sometimes referred to inaccurately as Cro-Magnon man after a skeleton discovered at a hill of that name in France, and which proved that modern man was present during the Ice Ages.)

Though farming originated among the peoples in the Middle East, and spread along the Danube and along the Mediterranean to reach the British Isles it did not significantly alter the composition of the population. The latest genetic research shows that the peoples who occupied Europe in the Palaeolithic period are still there today. These were modern men, and if a selection of them from any particular country could be transported to the twentieth century and dressed in modern styles they would be totally indistinguishable from the modern population. They were every bit as intelligent as modern men even if they lacked things which modern people take for granted like writing and metal tools. Lacking writing everything had to be committed to memory which when it is constantly trained and exercised can be very accurate. (Hawkes and Woolley I, 55).

   Europe was not totally devoid of humans during the Ice Age. Small pockets survived in southern Europe. Those groups who survived in the south of France would have been the first to take advantage of the retreating ice, and follow the animals they hunted northwards. If we think of language, we should rather look to the language or languages of North Africa. The later Hamito-semitc group of languages spread all over North Africa and the Near East in the same manner as the still later Indo-European did over Europe. It is possible that the language was Basque, but there is no indication that Basque was spoken in the Basque region from an early period or outside it.

When they try to find out about the peoples and their way of life archaeologists use not only artefacts which survived but also the results of other disciplines. Modern archaeology is linked to many other fields. For example, to establish a chronology archaeologists often use techniques developed by researchers in other disciplines: radiocarbon dating, developed by atomic physicists; geological-dating procedures, developed by geologists; and techniques for evaluating fauna, developed by palaeontologists. Even by examining a piece of pottery an archaeologist can deduce many things about the person or society who made it, how technologically advanced they were, what artistic values they had, what contacts with other peoples, or what uses they put the artefact. Studying other present day peoples like tribes in Siberia or Australia can give clues regarding social organisation or religious beliefs. Some archaeologists regard their study as a branch of anthropology

These later Palaeolithic peoples and cultures are marked not only by their distinct skeletal remains, but also by their characteristic forms of stone tools. There was a sudden and surprising flowering of art of a quality not to be matched for thousands of years. It would seem that clothing was developed in this period as well. The Magdalenians had barbed harpoons and spear throwers, two new additions to the toolkit. It would seem they had a well-developed system of speech. But far from speaking a common language, judging by what was found in Australia, there were innumerable languages, each probably spoken by no more than 500 people. They lived in small scattered groups of 20 0r 30 individuals, or in cases as few as half a dozen. Different groups would meet at particular times for festivals or jamborees, and for the celebration of marriage, for all had to marry outside their own group (Hawkes and Woolley 119ff). Population density in the hunting-gathering cultures was very low, and the total world population probably did not exceed several million. They buried their dead, or otherwise disposed of the corpses in a ritual manner.

Dating and Chronology

Experts are now agreed on the principles of dating. In earlier times attempts were made to date everything with reference to dates in the Bible, which provides an quite accurate chronology though slightly incomplete back to about 1000BC. Geologists by the beginning of the nineteenth century were beginning to point out that much longer timescales had to be contemplated. Archaeologists too realised that dates in the Bible before 1000 BC were not reliable.

 Because of an abundance of widely traded pottery in the Near East and over much of Europe they found it possible to build up a system of relative chronology. The ground surfaces of towns that were occupied for hundreds or thousands of years gradually rose up as buildings were built, destroyed, levelled and built on again. During excavation successive layers of occupation could be identified, and these often had distinctive forms of pottery. Not every site occupied would have the complete series, but after several excavations at different sites in different countries, Iraq, Palestine, Egypt, etc, it was possible to build up a complete series for that region.

The fact that pottery was traded meant that typically Egyptian pottery could be found in Palestine. Pottery from Mesopotamia could be found in a similar site in Palestine, in the same layer, or one above or below. Layers therefore in Mesopotamia could be tied in with layers in Egypt, perhaps at several points. If pieces of Near Eastern pottery were found in mounds in southern Russia or northern Europe, an indication was given of its place in the relative series. This system was developed by Sir Flinders Petrie at the beginning of the twentieth century, and was the principal one used up until the end of the Second World War.

Just after the end of the war, archaeologists began to apply a new technique called carbon 14 dating based on the rate of decay of a radioactive isotope of carbon 14, using the fact that radioactivity decays at constant rates. A growing substance accumulates carbon 14 while it is alive, but not after it dies. Thereafter the radioactivity decays at a constant rate. Therefore, if the layers contained vegetable matter like pieces of wood, it was possible to determine with some accuracy how long before the present the piece of wood was in use. Though the figures were often inaccurate by a couple of hundred years, it was possible to make large corrections, especially in northern and western Europe to the relative chronology based on ceramics. Where only pieces of metal and no pottery were found large inaccuracies were possible. In course of time the techniques for carbon 14 dating became more refined, the results were calibrated, and the limits of inaccuracy correspondingly decreased.

The third great method of dating was developed in the south-western United States before the Second World War, and was based on counting and examining the rings of growth of trees after they are sawn down. Any schoolchild can count the rings, and perhaps arrive at a figure of two or three hundred years for an old tree. However, in California, the bristlecone pines can live for 4000 years. The technique was introduced into Europe after the War, and it was realised that the patterns of tree growth in a given area were quite distinctive. A good growing year would produce a wide ring, and a poor growing year a narrow ring. This affected every tree living at the time. If there was a decade of poor growth, this would be reflected in every tree, young and old. Therefore, using different pieces of timber recovered from various sites, it was possible to build up a very accurate series of tree rings dating back for thousands of years.

The further back we go the greater the margin for inaccuracy, and techniques for dating are being improved all the time. Nevertheless we can be confident that we have reasonably accurate dating for most archaeological sites. [Top] 

Post-glacial from 13000 BC

Retreat of Ice 13000 to 10000 BC

            Physical Consequences Nobody has ever been able to explain what causes the alterations in climate that has caused the earth over the past million years or so alternately to warm up and cool down. But once a period of warming starts the ice retreats fairly quickly. What was built up over 20000 or 30000 years could virtually disappear within a few thousand years. About 13000 BC the most recent warming commenced and rose to its highest peak in modern times about 5000 BC, by which time the icesheets had virtually disappeared from Europe and North America. As the ice melted the sea-level rose, but the land too rose more slowly as the weight of the ice was removed. The sea now covered most of where the Irish Sea now is, but in the north Ireland remained connected with Scotland. England was still connected with France, though the Rhine, at least in the earlier part of the period may have flowed through the Strait of Dover. It was probably possible to walk from England to Denmark until about 6500 BC. The bridge with Scotland may have lasted until 5,500 BC (Mitchell 63ff) and the bridge with France until c. 3200 BC. As most of the British Isles had to be re-colonised by plants and animals the earlier severance of Ireland from Scotland explains the fewer numbers of plants and animals found in Ireland. The history of Ireland may be considered to have begun with this post-glacial re-colonisation. It is, of course, possible that some men had reached Ireland at an earlier date. But if they did the glaciers wiped away all traces of their occupation.

            The level of the sea at the end of the Ice Age was probably 130 meters below the present level. About 3000 BC it rose considerably above its present level, giving rise to raised beaches along the coast. As the rise in the water was more rapid than the rise in the land, when the earth recovered its shape after the removal of the ice the old beaches were raised above sea-level

Formation of soil Probably the most important consequence of the glaciations and meltings was the formation of soils, most of which were fertile for plant life, and which then were able to support animal and human life. The action of the ice also produced those well-known features of the Irish landscape, drumlins and eskers. The latter were long ridges of gravel and had their use in providing dry and open pathways across the country. But the formation of the soil was the most important effect. The weight of the ice crushed, ground, and transported rock. This was laid down as barren glacial drift that covers much of Ireland, thickly in places, and thinly in others. The Burren in county Clare is an example of bare glaciated rock from which all soil was removed by glaciation and no compensating drift laid down.

            But as the ice cover was removed the upper layers of the soil were exposed for thousands of years to the action of frost, and rain and wind. A moist powdery surface was formed which was colonised by plants, Arctic plants at first, then grasses, and trees whose seeds were scattered by the winds.

Return of the forests As the ice retreated to the north the landscape at first resembled the tundra of northern Europe and Siberia. The tundra is described as the region between the one where trees grow and that covered with perpetual ice. The soil is permanently frozen, but as the surface thaws in the summer hardy plants establish themselves, mosses, lichens, grasses, dwarf shrubs, herbaceous perennials like docks and sorrels, and some stunted trees like birches and willows (Bellamy 89). As the climate continued to improve the great coloniser among trees, the birch, gradually spread. The great animals of the late Palaeolithic period did not return to Ireland, with one exception, the great Irish elk. The very size of its great antlers indicate that it lived in open, lightly-forested country. They survived about 2000 years. But about 10000 BC a brief cold snap lasting perhaps no more than 500 years drove it out of the country, and the tundra returned.

            The great animals that had been hunted during the Ice Ages disappeared and ponies, cattle, pigs, sheep, deer, and the smaller mammals took their place. These wild animals were much smaller than their modern domesticated counterparts that are the result of selective breeding

Mesolithic Period 10000 to 4500 BC

Climatic Periods Climate in Ireland as in the rest of Europe continued to fluctuate or oscillate within a narrower band and at irregular intervals since the ending of the Ice Age. This had profound effects on the human population. For example in warmer wetter periods dense deciduous forests would cover much of the lowlands and human habitation would be confined to higher ground and poorer soils where the forest was less dense. Rivers would provide the only practicable way of getting about. At the same time the warmer climate would mean that dwellings would be comfortable at altitudes which today we find bleak and windswept. Though the range of temperature fluctuations has been smaller in the past 2000 years it cannot be ignored. Grassy fields probably surrounded a settlement on a hillside a thousand feet above sea-level in Roman times. But when cultivation again reached that height before the Great Famine the place would have been bleak, the soil leached and poor, and the vegetation scraggy.

            Climatologists distinguish the following periods between 10000 BC and about 400 AD, Dryas, Pre-Boreal, Boreal, Atlantic, Sub-Boreal, and Sub-Atlantic. After 300 or 400 AD, though with much less certainty they identify a colder period from 400 AD to 1000 AD. Some then identify a rise in temperature from c 1000 AD to 1350 AD, followed by a fall until 1740, the so-called 'Little Ice Age', and a rise between 1740 and 1940. Others identify an earlier medieval rise in temperatures and a minor climatic optimum in the North Atlantic region at the time of the Viking expansion and the colonisation of Greenland. But whatever the precise dates it seems clear that the climate in Ireland in Roman times was higher than at present, and that the temperature continued to fall in post-Roman times. At some point in the early Middle ages the fall in temperature reversed allowing the colonisation of Iceland and Greenland between 1000 AD and 1200 AD. The trend reversed itself about 1350, the glaciers advanced, the Greenland colonies were wiped out. This falling trend was reversed about 1740.

            It is estimated that average temperatures in Europe were about 11 C during the Ice Ages, and 15C in post-glacial times, and then it has oscillated about that point. The highest average temperatures were about 5000 BC when they reached 17-18 C in the Boreal Period. The next climatic optimum was in the Sub-Boreal period 3200 BC, the third in Roman times, and the fourth c.1000 AD. Each oscillation was smaller than its predecessor and its effects were less. The trend was continuously downward since the post-glacial climatic optimum c. 5000 BC.

            The effects in modern times were so slight that the only historical event that could plausibly have been affected by them was the expansion of the Vikings. By the later Middle Ages advances in technology were sufficient to overcome any adverse effects. The rise or fall of 1 degree in average temperatures would not be noticed. But even a brief succession of cold or hot or wet or dry years could produce a series of bad harvests that could have marked political effect. The Land League for example in the 1880s might not have had much effect had it not been preceded by a series of bad harvests.

Dryas  This refers to the earliest post-glacial period when vegetation was beginning to spread. It gets its name from a characteristic Arctic plant. It extended from approximately 12000 BC to approximately 8000 BC. It was divided into Older Dryas, an intervening cold snap, and the Younger Dryas. The dating is very inaccurate especially for Ireland, though all agree that there was a brief cold spell that killed off the trees. During this short cold period there was again a permanent permafrost, but Arctic plants like saxifrages, crowberry, mountain sorrel, and spring gentian blossomed in the summers (Bellamy 90) 

Pre-boreal The resumption of the growth of trees marks the Pre-boreal period.   The birch reappeared, willow, juniper, birch and hazel. The pine that together with birch and hazel dominated the landscape followed these. Oak, elm, yew, ash, and alder were also present in small numbers. Peat bogs began to appear. (Bellamy, loc. cit., Mitchell 63ff)

Boreal  The Boreal and Atlantic periods are named from the prevailing wind systems and associated weather patterns. There was probably some connection with the oscillating phases of temperature, but the link is obscure. The terms were originally used to describe climatic periods in Scandinavia, but were found to be of wider application. Boreal is derived from the Greek for north wind, hence north. The distinction was between a climate where the prevailing winds were from the north, hence dryer, or from the west, the Atlantic, hence wetter. The mild moist westerlies favour the growth of deciduous trees. The dominance of the north wind indicates that the high pressure systems over Siberia extend their influence further to the west resulting in a continental climate, dryer with hotter summers and colder winters. As Ireland was so far to the west the influence of the Siberian systems were correspondingly weaker but they were never negligible. The Atlantic and Sub-Atlantic periods were marked in Ireland by a covering of dense deciduous forests largely of oak.

            The Boreal period was also the period of the 'climatic optimum'. The forests of pine, birch, and hazel gave way to forests of oak, and elm but without totally the latter displacing the former species. The forests were filled with small animals, and the rivers with fish. It was during this time that man first came to Ireland.

Atlantic Shortly after the arrival of man in Ireland (in the Mesolithic culture period), the climate became wetter or more oceanic. The pine forests were pushed on to the higher ground. Oak, elm, and alder formed dense, almost impenetrable, forests over the whole of lowland Ireland, as over much of western Europe. Bogs were not widespread as they were to become later. For 1500 years these dense forests covered Ireland making life difficult for the Mesolithic hunters. The wet climate caused the growth of bogs to recommence (Bellamy 91). The Irish and North Seas began to expand as the sea-level continues to rise. The land bridge with Scotland disappeared probably around 5500 BC after the arrival of the first men and before the arrival of the farmers. The sea spread over what is now the southern North Sea. During this period the first (Neolithic) farmers appeared in Ireland, and began clearing the forests by means of fire, felling, and ring-barking. In Ireland this led to the widespread development of bogs (Bellamy 93). The Atlantic period ended with a second climatic optimum about 3000 BC. The ice had retreated to its farthest extent, and the seas risen to their maximum height. The land bridge between England and France probably disappeared during the maximum marine transgression about 3200 BC

 Sub-Boreal and Sub-Atlantic.  Of the Sub-boreal and Sub-Atlantic there is little to be added as they were repeats of the former period with the difference that average temperatures were somewhat lower than in the earlier periods. The Sub-boreal period coincided with the peak of cultural development in the prehistoric period. It was the period of the full development of the Neolithic and megalithic cultures, and the Bronze Age in Ireland. It was when the great passage grave mounds were built. (It was also the period of Stonehenge in England and the great pyramids of Egypt.) The Sub-Atlantic period coincides roughly with the Iron Age in Ireland and the period of the 'Celtic invasions'. It is the most obscure period in the whole of Irish history. The grasslands which had been developed and cultivated by the farmers in the preceding period were swept away and the forests closed in again. Bogs again grew rapidly

Mesolithic Cultures

SouthWest Asia The term Mesolithic is used to describe the culture of the hunter-gatherers in the post-glacial period. In many ways it was a continuation of the old Palaeolithic culture. The characteristic markers of the period are the microliths. These are flint tools composed of small sharpened flints mounted in wood or bone to form tools with composite blades. Among these were arrows and flint sickles. The bow and arrow had just been invented. The sickle showed that the grains of the wild cereal plants were being gathered. The dog was the only domesticated animal. The Mesolithic period was short in South West Asia where the farming and other techniques like the manufacture of pottery of the Neolithic period soon developed. But the phase lasted several thousand years in parts of north western Europe, and it is to these latter that the term Mesolithic is normally applied.         

Mesolithic cultures in Western Europe The Mesolithic culture in north west Europe is usually called the Maglemosian after a site in Denmark. This culture extended from Ireland to Russia. The people possessed the microlithic tools and used wood, stone, antler, and bone artefacts. They had dugout canoes. They hunted game in the forests, and fished in the rivers and lakes beside which they preferred to make their habitation. The owned dogs.  They invented an axe capable of felling trees and making dugout canoes. They made nets, hooks, and all kinds of fishing gear. At a later stage in Denmark the Ertbølle culture was distinguished by the enormous middens of shells from shellfish they left behind them. The ever increasing density of the forests compelled them to live on seashores and the margins of the forests. The Maglemosians made their way across the land bridge where the southern North Sea now is. A classical Maglemosian site has been excavated at Starr Carr in Yorkshire, and a midden culture was discovered at Oban in Scotland. The Mesolithic peoples began the process of deforestation, not by clearing sites with axes but by the use of fire. They did not herd animals, but deer and other wild animals would have been attracted to the fresh grass that would spring up on a stretch of forest burned by fire. Unfortunately the removal of the trees had the effect on the mountains of causing water-logging, and this led to the development of blanket bogs. The entire population of Britain probably did not exceed 1000. At the same time there was a town covering 10 acres at Jericho in Palestine. Techniques of carpentry were discovered at this time, and also the technique of spinning thread. This latter was a prelude to the invention of weaving, but its earliest use was for making nets and traps. The earliest fibre spun was from nettles. The manufacture of boats dates from the Mesolithic period. Both fire and flint axes were used for the purpose. The Australian aborigines and the South African Bushmen retained the Mesolithic way of life until the coming of the Europeans.

Mesolithic Settlers in Ireland         Ireland was still connected with Scotland and northern England when the first men arrived in Ireland. This was between 7000 BC and 6500 BC and coincides with the onset of the warmer Boreal period. A site at Mount Sandel near Coleraine, Co. Londonderry, is the earliest recorded. They made tools from flints that were found in a rare chalk outcrop in Ireland. Unlike in southern England and northern France chalk deposits with flints are rare in Ireland. This fact too led to the development of trading, for tools made of chert were found there. Flint is a nearly pure silica. Chert is also composed of silica, but is more coarse-grained, is not so good, but is found more widely distributed. Flint, chert, and the rare volcanic glass obsidian, could be shaped by chipping. Granites and schists, though equally hard, could not, and the techniques of grinding had not yet been discovered. A group of about a dozen people probably occupied the site for most of the year.

            Mesolithic settlement are largely associated with the north of Ireland, but sites have been found as far south as county Offaly, and even in Munster (Harbison 16ff). A site at Newferry on the Bann seems to have been occupied seasonally to catch eels. This was occupied at a much later period and was in existence when the Neolithic settlers arrived. Another site was excavated at Larne, county Antrim, and at one time they were called Larnian people. The people at this site specialised in the manufacture of flint tools. Some consider, on the basis of the style of the tools, that they were a different group of settlers from Britain. The Mesolithic people were the sole occupiers of Ireland for over 2500 years. It is impossible, from lack of evidence, to say if occupation was continuous during that period.     

Languages, religion, and social organisation              The social organisation was undoubtedly unchanged from that of their ancestors in the late glacial period as described above. We have no idea what language or languages they spoke, or whether there was only one language in the British Isles. Whether there was more than one language spoken in Ireland would depend on whether more than one linguistic group colonised Britain. As Britain was attached to the Continent all the way from Denmark to Brittany the chances are that more than one linguistic group entered. There is only one non-Indo-European language in western Europe, namely, Basque, and some claim it was more widely spoken than it is at present. But there is no indication that it was spoken in northern Europe.

With regard to religious beliefs and practices we can hazard that they differed little from those of the preceding period. The question whether any of their descendants remain in Ireland to the present day will be discussed under the Neolithic Period. [Top]


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