The Earliest Inhabitants

Compared with the European mainland, Ireland hasn't been inhabited for very long. Africa, the Middle East, and central Europe have all housed humans for hundreds of thousands of years, and there is evidence of humans in England going back at least 250,000 years. But it was only about 9,000 years ago that anyone ventured to the Emerald Isle. Why was this? One word: ice.

Snow and Ice and Everything Nice

Ireland was covered with ice for a very long time. It had few plants, and the only animals who lived there were creatures that prefer snow and ice, such as reindeer, woolly mammoths, and the spectacular Irish giant deer. The temperature fluctuated, but mostly just in variations on the same theme of cold.

Is it certain there were no humans in Ireland before 8000 B.C.E.?

No. There were Neanderthal people in England for thousands of years before Ireland was definitely inhabited, and they might have ventured to Ireland. But so far no one has found traces of them, and they probably weren't there during the last ice age.

About 13,000 years ago, the ice finally started to recede and Ireland warmed up. This was bad for some of the larger mammals, which became extinct, but it was good for smaller creatures and plants. No one knows for sure how Ireland's wildlife got there; maybe it floated across the Irish Sea, or maybe there was a temporary bridge of land between Ireland and England. In any case, by about 5000 B.C.E. Ireland was covered with forests and full of wild beasts.

The Mesolithic Period

These conditions made Ireland even more attractive to humans. The early settlers did not leave behind much information about themselves. Mostly, archaeologists have found stone tools — things like axes, knives, and scrapers. People used these tools to chop plants or skin animals. Ireland is full of these stone tools, many of which have been picked up by amateur collectors.

Flint is one of the best stones for tool making, and the best flint in Ireland is in the northeastern corner. And that's where most of Ireland's stone tools have been found — in Antrim, Down, and the Strangford Lough area. One of the best Mesolithic sites is Mount Sandel in County Derry, where archaeologists have found the remains of several little dome-shaped huts, built there between 7010 and 6490 B.C.E. Here people lived, huddled around their fires, eating nuts, berries, pigs, birds, and fish.

Modern people use the term Stone Age to describe anything hopelessly primitive and benighted. But Stone Age hunter-gatherers seem to have lived quite well. Plants and animals for food were plentiful and provided them with a balanced diet and ample leisure time. The archaeological record suggests that people only turn to the more “advanced” agricultural way of life when local free supplies run low.

The Mesolithic Period, also known as the Middle Stone Age, lasted for several thousand years. Stone technology did not change much during this time. People lived a fairly migratory existence, moving around in pursuit of plants and animals.

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