Remote Community in Ireland Survived a Millennium of Environmental Change

Fofanny Reservoir

The peat-covered uplands of the North of Ireland are today used mainly for commercial forestry, sheep-grazing and outdoor recreation, but were formerly wooded and farmed. Credit: Helen Essell, CC-BY 4.0

Study finds social conditions key to long-term resilience during times of dramatic change.

A remote community in Ireland was adaptable enough to persevere through a millennium of environmental change, according to a study that was published on April 27, 2022, in the open-access journal PLOS ONE by Gill Plunkett and Graeme Swindles of Queen’s University Belfast, Northern Ireland, U.K.

There are numerous examples of past societies that have been severely impacted by environmental changes such as climate change, natural disasters, and other dramatic ecological shifts that have contributed to food crises, epidemics, and other calamities. However, it’s more difficult to determine long-term effects of environmental disturbances. The authors of this study look at environmental and community changes in the Antrim Plateau in the north of Ireland over a thousand years of occupation.

This study analyzed a peat core recording environmental changes over the last millennium at a site called Slieveanorra. The authors used data from microbes, natural plants, and crop plants to infer environmental and human occupation changes, and they used ash layers, organic remains, and historical accounts to establish fine-scale dating. There was no evidence of long-term disruption to human occupation due to environmental changes in their record. 

These results reflect a community that was able to either escape the effects of environmental change, or to rebound quickly. This surprising resilience from a relatively remote occupation was most likely the result of social factors – such as agricultural and trade practices – which made the community flexible and adaptable.

In the face of environmental change, the authors suggest, not all human communities respond the same way, and this variation is largely linked to the social conditions of each respective population. Understanding this complexity is key to understanding what conditions make communities vulnerable to cultural collapse in the face of environmental change.

The authors add: “Ireland’s uplands today seem barren, but they were occupied and farmed for centuries, despite climate change, famines, and plague.”

Reference: “Bucking the trend: Population resilience in a marginal environment” by Gill Plunkett and Graeme T. Swindles, 27 April 2022, PLOS ONE.
DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0266680

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