For more than 3,000 years Ireland was populated by people of the Middle Stone Age (Mesolithic period) who were basically hunter gatherers. They moved across the country without ever settling in one place as they searched for food.
From about 4,000BC onwards, all that changed as Ireland was transformed by revolutionary ideas that were steadily moving across Europe.
This was the beginning of the Neolithic Period – the time of the New Stone Age. The shift in lifestyle was largely down the change in climate. Rising temperatures as the Ice Age retreated meant the land was becoming more fertile and more suitable for growing crops.
Agriculture had already begun in the warmer countries of southern Europe. The warmer temperatures arrived later in Ireland as it is further north, but once it appeared, the Irish took full advantage.
It’s thought the impetus probably came from new waves of settlers arriving in the country bringing their recently acquired agricultural skills with them. They would have displaced and eventually absorbed the existing settlers in Ireland. This led to a period of prosperity and spectacular achievements which can still be seen today.
Cultivation of crops completely transformed life in Ireland. It provided a plentiful and reliable food supply which enabled to the population to grow at a faster rate. It also changed the way of life.
Agriculture meant people had to stay in one place while they tended the crops and waited for the harvest. It led to the creation of permanent settlements. This is why the Neolithic New Stone Age people left their mark on the country in a way that the nomadic Middle Stone Age people could not.
Archaeologists have uncovered several Neolithic settlements, the most notable perhaps is the one at Ceide Fields, which is near Belderg in Co Mayo. This large settlement is thought to have lasted for more than 500 years from about 4,000BC onwards. Cereals such as wheat and barley were grown there, and cattle were kept in carefully constructed enclosures.
Numerous fragments of handmade pottery from this time have been uncovered. Axes and other cutting tools made from porcellanite, a harder and sharper stone than the ‘old fashioned ‘ flint of the Middle Stone Age, have also been found. These porcellanite tools would have made it easier to clear woodland to make it suitable for agriculture.
Similar settlements have been found all over Ireland. Some show the remains of circular stone houses and many include defensive enclosures, suggesting raids and inter-tribal warfare were a constant danger.
Impressive though these archaeological findings may be, they are totally eclipsed by the Neolithic people’s most spectacular legacy – the ancient burial sites which can still be seen across Ireland today.
The most impressive – Newgrange, Knowth and Dowth – are to be found in a World Heritage Site known as Bru na Boinne.