Analysis of pollen preserved in peat at Slieveanorra in the Antrim hills reveals the resilience of a rural community through environmental changes
27 April 2022
A rural Irish community survived a succession of climate shifts and other threats over the past 1000 years, a study of pollen preserved in peat has revealed. The finding suggests that societies can endure despite environmental changes, if they are flexible enough to adapt their way of life.
People in Ireland have experienced multiple upheavals over the past millennium. These include the European famine of 1315-17, the Black Death of 1348-49 and the Irish Potato Famine of 1845-52. There were also climatic shifts, notably the transition from the relatively warm Medieval climate anomaly to the marginally cooler Little Ice Age.
To find out more about how people handled these events, Gill Plunkett and Graeme Swindles at Queen’s University Belfast in the UK studied an archaeological site called Slieveanorra in the Antrim hills, now part of Northern Ireland. It is a bog in the uplands, surrounded on three sides by ridges.
“If you go up today, it’s deserted,” says Plunkett, but there are abandoned houses and indications of farming.
Plunkett and Swindles studied pollen from a peat core from Slieveanorra to find out what plants grew there over the past 1000 years. They found evidence of human interference throughout, such as fewer trees than would be expected, more pasture plants plus cereal crops.
The team also saw pollen from plants in the cannabis family, which includes hemp. “I think we’ve probably got hemp being produced and flax as well,” says Plunkett, perhaps for the textile industry.
The little community weathered multiple crises. The famine and plague of the 1300s were associated with increased land use, suggesting that any reduction in the population was temporary. The only time the site was possibly abandoned was during a wet period in the mid-1400s, for a generation or two, but after that farming resumed and even increased.
Only in the early 1900s did farming cease. Plunkett thinks that was because people saw better opportunities elsewhere, rather than the area becoming uninhabitable.
It isn’t clear why the Slieveanorra community was so resilient, but Plunkett says one reason may be that there was no landlord or owner, at least until the late 1800s. This meant the people living there were free to change their lifestyle, for example doing more hunting when crops grew poorly – instead of having to send a certain quantity of grain to a feudal lord.
Journal reference: PLoS One, DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0266680
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