By: Hans Splinter
Irish Hunter Gatherers
Welcome back to Mesolithic Ireland. That last time we visited this period of Irish history I introduced you the Irish legends about the first Irish men and women. This week we are going to take a look at the reality of Ireland's past.
The first people to arrive to Ireland came to the island via boats from Scotland and England 8,000 years ago. Although there were people all over Europe and England by this time, Ireland had remained untouched until these groups of hunter-gatherers came to the island. The Irish Mesolithic period spans from 8,000 to 4,000 BC.
Hunter - Gatherers
The Mesolithic Era is also know as the Middle Stone Age periods. Humans in Ireland lived as hunter-gatherers because they depended upon gathering plants and hunting for the food source. Although farming was discovered by Middle Eastern cultures around 12,000 BC it wouldn't reach Ireland until 4000 BC.
Every human society has a kinship system that defines how someone is related to another person. Kinship is important to understand when you trying to understand how any given society operates. It is so ingrained in any given culture that is second nature to anyone who is born in that given culture but can be overwhelming to anyone who is new to that group. Kinship was around in human groups from the very beginnings of our societies. It played an important rule in hunter-gatherer societies.
Hunter-gatherer societies were clan based with anywhere between 50-100 adults. The clan controlled the territory in which its members hunted, lived and gathered plants. Every member of the clan believed they had descended from a common ancestor, thus making kinship critically important. Members of the clan shared a common cultural identity which offered a sense of belonging to anyone born into that society. The clan set cultural taboos that identified who you could marry, who your friends were and who your enemies were. Members of the clan were forbidden to marry outside their clan. Clan leadership did not have a king or chief because everyone lived in smaller groups. These smaller groups were family based. The family group was comprised of anywhere between 10-12 adults plus children. There were some members of the clan that were honored for their wisdom and were credited with having special magical powers.
The River Shannon
|The River Shannon|
Ireland's Oldest Cemetery
The River Shannon was one of the rivers in which Mesolithic hunter-gatherer groups settled and on it's bank contains Ireland's earliest cemetery. The Mesolithic cemetery was discovered in 2001 when Sarah McCutcheon dug a test-trenched for the Castleconnell Rising Main. The trench revealed several archeological features. Local authorities called in Aegis Archaeology to investigate the site. The excavation site was divided into four quadrants. You can read the entire report at excavations.ie.
Archeologists located two burial pits that each contained the cremated remains of and adult. The first burial pit dating to 7530-7320 BC and is believed to contain a male. His body had been carefully placed in a pit around a wooden post in a crescent formation. His bones showed evidence that whoever had conducted the rite was very familiar with cremations. A large stone ax found next to body showed evidence it had been placed next to the body in the funeral pyre. There was several pieces of flint and chert shards with the remains.
The second burial pit was located 100m away from the first pit and is dated to 7090-7030 BC. This date makes this burial slightly later than the first one. The burial pit was 2.30m long by 1.50m wide by 0.65m. There was no evidence of a wooden pole in the pit. There were small cremated remains of an adult but not enough to determine the gender. Archeologists found several pieces of worked and unworked flint and chert and burnt fish bones. Some scientist believe the fish bones could have been an offering place on the funeral pyre with the body or the last meal the person ate. This second burial differs from this first in that the entire body wasn't cremated. It wasn't an uncommon practice in Irish prehistory culture to have a "Token Burial." The missing remains could have been kept by the living as relics or deposited on sacred ground elsewhere.
The third and final burial pit contained the least amount of cremated bones and could not be determined if they were human or not. The pit was surrounded by a charcoal rich hill and measured 1.30m long by 0.70m wide by 0.50m deep. It was dated 6610-6370 BC, making it the latest of all the burial pits.
The burial pits along the River Shannon are not only important by date but by meaning as well. Ireland's oldest cemetery taught us that the Mesolithic Irish had a sophisticated burial practices and belief system.