Despite its rich archaeological heritage, Ireland has by world standards only recently been inhabited by man: its earliest settlers have, however, influenced the present landscape and created a significant part of the basis for the present population.
The prehistory of Ireland is paradoxical in that Ireland, after Iceland, may have been the last part of Europe to be occupied by man, probably less than 10,000 years ago, and yet it still has one of the richest archaeological heritages in western Europe [for further details, read the Appletree Press title Ireland's Ancient Stones by Kenneth McNally]. This heritage is so rich that we can easily become ensnared in the details of how tombs were built or the changes in the shape of pottery and metal axes to the extent of losing sight of the main aims of our study, one of which should be the question - how do we relate these relics of an apparently dim and distant past to ourselves?
If we return to our first observation - by world standards Ireland has only recently been colonised - it is startling to realise that human communities lived in Africa for over two million years, arrived in Europe at least 700,000 years ago and probably colonised southern England by 400,000 years ago. In other words, Ireland's record of human activity is one fortieth of that in southern England. What are the reasons for this difference? There is an undoubted correlation between the multiple glaciations of the more northerly parts of Europe and the apparent lack of early human settlement.
These glaciations, which have happened on numerous occasions within the last 700,000 years, have, at times, created huge ice sheets which have time and again forced man back into southern Europe and, more importantly, changed the whole nature of the landscapes which they covered. In Ireland, for example, they removed most of a several hundred feet thick layer of chalk that had covered much of the island. Effectively, every ice sheet wiped the slate clean with only 'flukes' preserving evidence of what had gone before.
Archaeologists refer to this period as the Palaeolithic or the Old Stone Age when, before the end of the ice age roughly 10,000 years ago, man lived as a hunter and gatherer with no knowledge of metal. If it had not been for these destructive ice sheets, could these Palaeolithic hunters not have lived in Ireland? It is interesting to know that even during the last cold stage which began at least 70,000 years ago, animals such as mammoth, hyaena and reindeer roamed the cold tundra steppes in Ireland before ice sheets eventually accumulated over most of the island. As we know that from 60,000 to 20,000 years ago human communities were living in south-west England, we must ask if these same people could not have crossed the sea to Ireland; in future years, we may be able to extend the antiquity of man in Ireland. Therefore, the second reason for Ireland's short history of human activity could simply be that we have not looked hard enough.
Click here for part 2.