Prehistoric Ireland - Neolithic (4000–2500 BC)

Neolithic (4000–2500 BC)

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, which arrive simultaneously, a process that 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, that 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, raised sheep and goats more intensely. 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 region shortly 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. The red deer was introduced from Britain about this time.

From around 4500 BC a Neolithic package that included cereal cultivars, housing culture (similar to those of the same period in Scotland) and stone monuments arrived in Ireland. Sheep, goats, cattle and cereals were imported from southwest continental Europe, and the population then rose significantly. At the Céide Fields in County Mayo, an extensive Neolithic field system (arguably the oldest known in the world) has been preserved beneath a blanket of peat. Consisting of small fields separated from one another by dry-stone walls, the Céide Fields were farmed for several centuries between 3500 and 3000 BC. Wheat and Barley were the principal crops cultivated. Pottery made its appearance around the same time as agriculture. Ware similar to that found in northern Britain has been excavated in Ulster (Lyle's Hill pottery) and in Limerick. Typical of this ware are wide-mouthed, round-bottomed bowls.

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 cold climates—however, barley and German rye were suitable replacements. It can be speculated that the DQ2.5 aspect of the AH8.1 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.

  • Different types of megalithic tombs
  • Creevykeel court tomb, County Sligo.

  • Knowth, a passage tomb located at Brú na Bóinne.

  • Poulnabrone dolmen, a portal tomb located at The Burren.

  • Glantane East wedge tomb.

The most striking characteristic of the Neolithic in Ireland was the sudden appearance and dramatic proliferation of megalithic monuments. The largest of these tombs were clearly places of religious and ceremonial importance to the Neolithic population. In most of the tombs that have been excavated, human remains—usually, but not always, cremated—have been found. Grave goods—pottery, arrowheads, beads, pendants, axes, etc.—have also been uncovered. These megalithic tombs, more than 1,200 of which are now known, can be divided for the most part into four broad groups:

  • Court tombs – These are characterised by the presence of an entrance courtyard. They are found almost exclusively in the north of the country and are thought to include the oldest specimens. North Mayo has many examples of this type of megalith – Faulagh, Kilcommon, Erris.
  • Passage tombs – These constitute the smallest group in terms of numbers, but they are the most impressive in terms of size and importance. They are distributed mainly throughout the north and east of the country, the biggest and most impressive of them being found in the four great Neolithic “cemeteries” of the Boyne, Loughcrew (both in County Meath), Carrowkeel and Carrowmore (both in County Sligo). The most famous of them is Newgrange, a World Heritage Site and one of the oldest astronomically aligned monuments in the world. It was built around 3200 BC. At the Winter Solstice the first rays of the rising sun still shine through a light-box above the entrance to the tomb and illuminate the burial chamber at the center of the monument. Another of the Boyne megaliths, Knowth, contains the world’s earliest map of the Moon carved into stone.
  • Portal tombs – These tombs include the well known dolmens. They consist of three or more upright stones supporting a large flat horizontal capstone (table). Most of them are to be found in two main concentrations, one in the southeast of the country and one in the north. The Knockeen and Gaulstown Dolmens in County Waterford are exceptional examples.
  • Wedge tombs – The largest and most widespread of the four groups, the wedge tombs are particularly common in the west and southwest. County Clare is exceptionally rich in them. They are the latest of the four types and belong to the end of the Neolithic. They are so called from their wedge-shaped burial chambers.

The theory that these four groups of monuments were associated with four separate waves of invading colonists still has its adherents today, but the growth in population that made them possible need not have been the result of colonisation: it may simply have been the natural consequence of the introduction of agriculture.

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

At the height of the Neolithic the population of the island was probably in excess of 100,000, and perhaps as high as 200,000. But there appears to have been an economic collapse around 2500 BC, and the population declined for a while.

Read more about this topic:  Prehistoric Ireland