September 19, 2013
Neolithic boom and bust in Ireland
Neolithic agriculture on the European western frontier: the boom and bust of early farming in Ireland
Nicki J. Whitehouse et al.
A multi-disciplinary study assessing the evidence for agriculture in Neolithic Ireland is presented, examining the timing, extent and nature of settlement and farming. Bayesian analyses of palaeoenvironmental and archaeological 14C data have allowed us to re-examine evidential strands within a strong chronological framework. While the nature and timing of the very beginning of the Neolithic in Ireland is still debated, our results – based on new Bayesian chronologies of plant macro-remains – are consistent with a rapid and abrupt transition to agriculture from c. 3750 cal BC, though there are hints of earlier Neolithic presence at a number of sites. We have emphatically confirmed the start of extensive Neolithic settlement in Ireland with the existence of a distinct ‘house horizon’, dating to 3720-3620 cal BC, lasting for up to a century. Cereals were being consumed at many sites during this period, with emmer wheat dominant, but also barley (naked and hulled), as well as occasional evidence for einkorn wheat, naked wheat and flax. The earliest farmers in Ireland, like farmers elsewhere across NW Europe, were not engaged in shifting cultivation, but practised longer-term fixed-plot agriculture. The association between early agriculture and the Elm Decline seen in many pollen diagrams shows that this latter event was not synchronous across all sites investigated, starting earlier in the north compared with the west, but that there is a strong coincidence with early agriculture at many sites. After this early boom, there are changes in the nature of settlement records; aside from passage tombs, the evidence for activity between 3400-3100 cal BC is limited. From 3400 cal BC, we see a decrease in the frequency of cereal evidence and an increase in some wild resources (e.g. fruits, but not nuts, in the records), alongside evidence for re-afforestation in pollen diagrams (3500–3000 cal BC). Changes occur at a time of worsening climatic conditions, as shown in Irish bog oak and reconstructed bog surface wetness records, although the links between the various records, and assessment of causes and effects, will require further investigation and may prove complex. This period seems to have been one of environmental, landscape, settlement and economic change. The later 4th millennium BC emerges as a period that would benefit from focused research attention, particularly as the observed changes in Ireland seem to have parallels in Britain and further afield.