The Mesolithic/Neolithic transition in the southern region of Ireland: a Bayesian approach to the integration of the palaeoenvironmental and archaeological records

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Kearney, Kevin
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University College Cork
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This interdisciplinary study has assessed the evidence the Mesolithic/Neolithic transition (c.4500 – 3750 cal BC) in southern Ireland, examining the timing, extent and nature of woodland disturbance, agricultural activity and settlement during the period. This study represents the first explicit use of the Bayesian approach to address these issues and served to refine and integrate the two principal proxies available for investigating human activity during the Mesolithic/Neolithic transition. The integration of the palaeoenvironmental and archaeological records, within a Bayesian framework has allowed for the formulation of new hypotheses concerning patterns of vegetation change and the timing and intensity of human activity during the period. This thesis has demonstrated that the Early Neolithic archaeological record indicates that these practices began quite rapidly, with occupation sites associated with Early Neolithic material appearing from c.3750 cal BC. However, the early cattle bones from Ferriter’s Cove and Kilgreany Cave remain somewhat of an enigma in the context of the Early Neolithic in the region. This thesis redresses the geographical imbalance which had previously existed within palaeoenvironmental studies of the Late Mesolithic and Early Neolithic period in Ireland. The two new palynological records have provided robust, well-dated profiles which have been highly informative of the changing mid-Holocene landscape in southern Ireland. A distinct Landnam phase is exhibited at Lough Cullin which involved sustained woodland clearance and farming activity over several centuries, however, this occurred prior to the start of occupation at the Early Neolithic archaeological sites of the region. The statistical correlation between the date for the cattle bone from Kilgreany Cave and this Landnam phase may indicate the presence of domesticates in the region at the time when the most intense phase of woodland clearance was occurring which would have serious implications for our understanding on the timing and process of Neolithisation in Ireland. The mid-Holocene ‘Elm Decline’, often viewed as a chronological proxy for the start of the Neolithic, was demonstrated to be asynchronous across all sites investigated, and no degree of spatial cohesion was evidenced for this ‘event’. A correlation between anthropogenic activity and the onset of the ‘Elm Decline’ can be suggested at several sites, although this need not necessarily be ‘Neolithic’ activity. However, this was not in general agreement across all sites, indicating that the ‘Elm Decline’ across the island was a complex, multifactor, site-specific process. To conclude, the results of this thesis have produced a new body of critically assessed palaeoenvironmental data for the period. This study has contributed new perspectives on the timing and nature of human-environment interactions during this period of seismic cultural change. It has pioneered the use of the Bayesian approach to the integration and interpretation of complementary proxy records for human activity, highlighted the need for more considerations as to the chronological approaches taken by archaeological and palaeoenvironmental researchers.
Mesolithic , Neolithic , Transition , Archaeology , Palaeoecology , Southern Ireland , Bayesian
Kearney, K. 2018. The Mesolithic/Neolithic transition in the southern region of Ireland: a Bayesian approach to the integration of the palaeoenvironmental and archaeological records. PhD Thesis, University College Cork.