Prehistoric Life In Ireland
How People Lived in The Distant Past
Whether it’s visiting the site of an impressive Megalithic Tomb, a remote mountain top Cairn or an isolated Standing Stone, we all on occasions, most surely ponder and try to visualize what daily life must have been like for the people who constructed these remarkable monuments so far back in time.
But how much do we know about how these people who lived in Ireland so long ago. Well, it’s generally believed that the first settlers arrived in the country around 8000 BC to what was then an island covered in trees such as pine, birch, hazel and willow. The visitors quickly set about their task of survival, spreading throughout the country and used tools and weapons made from stone, wood and bone. There would have been an abundance of wild animals for food, and from archaeological excavations, we know that they lived almost entirely by hunting. These hunter-gatherers lived on a diet of seafood, birds, wild boar and hazelnuts and hunted with spears, arrows and harpoons tipped with small stone blades. Their modest dwellings were made of timber, sods, and skins and insulated with clay. These houses had no chimney, and most likely were smokey, and quite dark. Their clothes were probably made from animal hides.
The summers at that time were probably warm as evidence suggests that the climate in Ireland may have been a few degrees warmer then. In winter they had to endure long dark nights and we can only speculate how they may have passed the hours. Perhaps by the light of fire, they carved and prepared implements for hunting or work while the women cooked as offspring played simple games on the mud floor of their humble huts.
There is no doubt that their lives would have been a far cry from ours of today and most probably had a very simplistic rhythm as they went about their daily tasks. However, their spiritual beliefs were far more complex as they strived to understand the meaning of life and the hereafter. They lived close to the earth and no doubt had a great affinity with nature and the changing seasons but archaeological research also suggests that the sky and the heavens played a significant part in their customs and faith. They left behind many wonderful antiquities such as impressive stone monuments, precisely built passage tombs and questioning artistic symbols that even today archaeologists still differ on as to what they truly represent.
During the Mesolithic period (7000 – 4000 BC) the population of Ireland is thought to have been only a few thousand. There could have been many factors for this, one of which was possibly the unbalanced diet of the people which meant that life expectancy at the time only ranged from 25 – 40 years with the possibility also that infant mortality rate was high.
It is thought that farming began in Ireland about 4,000 BC. As a result, the people began settling in areas and were not exclusively dependant on hunting for their food. They used stone axes to clear forested areas, which were then prepared for grazing of livestock and also for growing of crops. They used the timber to construct houses and fences (below) which protected their animals from predators such as wolves.
The Bronze Age saw a greater range of tools and implements available, and these were stronger and more durable than their stone predecessors. However, stone weapons didn’t become obsolete but continued to be used along with the new tools for centuries. The sickle was used for the harvesting of corn and grass and the ox-drawn plough may have been introduced to Ireland around this time. A number of dug-out canoes (below) have been uncovered around the country and these were used for travel on small rivers and lakes and possibly used for fishing purposes.
The most notable characteristic of Neolithic Ireland (4000 –2400 BC) was the appearance of megalithic monuments such as impressive Portal Tombs (below) and Passage Graves, some of which were constructed on a grand scale. The largest of these tombs were clearly places of religious and ceremonial importance and were probably seen as an important landmark in the their communities. The legacy of these amazing constructions are a potent reminder of that society and a chance to marvel at the man power which would have been required to construct some of these striking features that remarkably survive in our landscape today. It would have taken many strong men to move these massive stones and tons of earth and yet we can only speculate on what motivated them to construct such lavish sacred buildings. What seems obvious though, is that that placed much emphasis and great respect on their dead ancestors and the belief that they could communicate with them. These people were probably accustomed to hard physical labour. However, it does seem to have had consequences on their health as archaeological evidence has indidcted that a high degree of arthritis permeated the population at that time.
Life in prehistoric Ireland was indeed very different. To survive, it appears that the people had to be adaptable, have a resilience to adverse and challenging conditions and had to utilise to the utmost what the earth had to offer them They may lived a short life but what they left behind has remarkably survived for thousands of years.
Photographs for this article copyright Martin Mullen by permission of the Irish National Heritage Park
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