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This information has been adapted from The Archaeology of Ulster: From Colonisation to Plantation by J.P. Mallory & T.E. McNeill, published by the Institute of Irish Studies, Queen’s University, in 1991.

The Ice Age

For much of the last two million years Ireland, like most of northern Europe, was largely covered by extensive sheets of ice, which during the coldest periods could be up to 350 metres thick.

However, there were also relatively warmer periods when open steppe lands with grass enough for animals to feed on may have provided useful hunting grounds. The remains of mammoths have been discovered near Crumlin, Co. Antrim that date over 40,000 years ago. At this time, much of the earth’s water was trapped in the great glaciers and the sea level was much lower than today. It may have been possible to travel easily from mainland Europe across to Britain and Ireland to hunt for game.

In archaeology this period of hunter communities following herds of mammoths, wild horses, wild cattle and reindeer is called the Palaeolithic (Old Stone Age). There is considerable evidence of these hunters in southern Britain, but no solid evidence in either Scotland or Ireland.

By about 12,000BC the climate had become increasingly warmer and the ice sheets were well on their way to melting. These new conditions permitted the gradual spread of trees and other plants northwards into Britain and Ireland. Without vast expanses of grasslands, mammoths and many other animals became extinct, while an increasingly forested landscape brought red deer, roe deer, elk, wild pig and aurochs further north. However, of these animals only the wild pig and red deer made it to Ireland. As the ice melted the sea levels rose dramatically, so that by 8,000BC Ireland was well separated from Britain. This helps explain why Ireland has a poorer range of native plants and animals and appears to have been settled by people much later.