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The Early Mesolithic: 7900-5500BC

The earliest evidence for human settlement in Ireland comes from Mountsandel, dated to 7900-7600BC.

The only remains normally found at Early Mesolithic sites are flint tools. Core axes were used for chopping wood and have rounded symmetrical edges that were regularly re-sharpened. Flake axes have a broad straight edge and were prepared from a large flake; the adze-like (asymmetrical) blade indicates they were used for planing or as a chisel. There are some examples of polished stone axes, which would dominate axe production in later periods, and picks and adzes have also been discovered. Some larger flakes could be used as tools by themselves, such as scrapers, which were used to clean animal hides. But the most typical tools for this period were microliths.

Microliths are small splinters or blades of flint that were fashioned into a number of different shapes, mostly scalene triangles, rods and needle points. To form such small and slender blades involved a technique called indirect percussion, where flakes where knocked off by striking a bone or antler with a hammer stone against pre-shaped nodule or flint, a core. Generally these small blades were not tools themselves but parts of larger tools. For example, they could be inserted into the end of a pointed shaft of wood to form barbs on an arrow or harpoon, or they might be set into a wooden handle to form a saw-like tool.

Most known sites are, like Mountsandel, situated in lowland areas and near rivers, lakes or the sea coast - there are about ten sites along the lower Bann. This suggests that the economy of these settlements was primarily based on fishing, shellfish collecting, trapping wild birds, and hunting the main lowland mammal, the wild pig. There is really no evidence for sites in the upland regions, which is where we might expect to find red deer, one of the main sources of food for Mesolithic man in Britain. In Ireland, red deer appears to have been much rarer, and therefore was not an important part of the diet. Indeed, red deer may not have arrived in Ireland until later.

Despite the meagre evidence, we do have some idea of what life may have been like during this period. In the spring time, a group of families, or a single family, would camp near the sea coast where there were supplies of fish and shellfish and sea birds could be trapped while they were nesting. The coasts of Antrim and Down would also have provided a ready source of flint. During the summer and early autumn, people would have moved inland along the rivers and established their camps in the best fishing places, such as where a river narrows or discharges from a lake. This would be the best season for catching salmon migrating upstream and gathering wild plants. Hazel nuts were especially important because they could be readily stored for winter. The late autumn was a good time to catch eels as they moved down river, but wild pig became the main source of food as winter progressed.

This was not a life of unendurable hardship; even today, hunter-gatherer societies living in the most inhospitable areas subsist with less effort and greater free time than their supposedly more civilised neighbours. They must have been not solely concerned with obtaining their next meal, but have possessed their own rituals, beliefs and art, all of which we are unable to retrieve.