According to recent research conducted by the Queen’s University Belfast’s School of Natural and Built Environment, the population of Ireland was possibly in decline for almost centuries before the (consistent) arrival of the Norsemen on their shores. This contradicts the popular belief that Ireland, like many contemporary early medieval regions, experienced a population growth of sorts. The researchers, making use of deep archaeological data science algorithms, have estimated the numbers. And according to their hypothesis, the decline could have been far worse if groups of Vikings didn’t ‘intervene’ and settled in Ireland by the 10th century – thereby reversing the population’s declining trend.
Dr. Rowan McLaughlin, Research Fellow from the School of Natural and Built Environment, and Emma Hannah, lead author of the paper, explained –
For early medieval Ireland, it seems the population numbered several million people, perhaps over three million when the population was at its maximum in the late 7th century. This number was never stable and was fated to tip into a long slow decline for centuries afterwards.
The Irish population hovered at around 1-2m until the introduction of potato farming in the 17th century enabled a population explosion—with numbers exceeding 8m by the 1840s. Famine provoked by disastrous potato crop failures led to years of migration in the 19th and 20th centuries. The population never recovered. Today, some 6.6m people live on the island.
Unlike the potato famine, the gradual nature of the early medieval decline implies that there was no single cause. Plagues, famines, wars and natural disasters can all put the brakes on growth. So too can changing values brought about by political forces, religious practices and economic instability. There are hints from the historical and archaeological records that all these factors could have played a role.
Crucially, we can tell the decline set in at least a century before the Vikings first began to trouble Irish shores, so they can’t be blamed for the downturn. In fact, the contrary may be true, as genetic evidence gathered in the present has demonstrated that living Irish people share a small but significant amount of their DNA with Scandinavians, and so the Vikings actually brought to Ireland fresh blood at a time when the existing population was stifled.
As for the scope of this study, the researchers fortuitously gained access to the database of various archaeological sites that were encountered all across Ireland during the ‘Celtic Tiger’ era, a period of economic boom from the early 90s to late 2000s, mirrored by expansion and construction of motorways and infrastructural development.
In accordance with the Irish law, the developers had to employ archaeologists to keep detailed records of the sites before their ‘transformations’. Consequently, the researchers were able to get their hands on such archaeological data that contained an assessment of sites from across the country. So, in essence, as opposed to analyzing singular sites, the researchers could focus on the broader scope of archaeological patterns in the early medieval period of Ireland.
The researchers explained –
We used a database of some 10,000 radiocarbon dates of human activity in Ireland that has accumulated since the technique was pioneered in the 1940s. Each one of these “dates” was once a living thing—a fragment of wood, a grain of cereal, or an animal or human bone. When any organism dies, a naturally radioactive stopwatch is set off. A radiocarbon laboratory is able to estimate the time elapsed since the organism died by measuring how much of this radioactivity remains.
Although archaeologists routinely use radiocarbon dating to arrange their discoveries in the correct order, the technique is not very accurate. To deal with many thousands of these “dates” simultaneously, we need computers to consider millions of permutations of the uncertainties. The software can then find a mathematical pattern that explains the data with a defined level of statistical confidence.
The results can be interpreted as a record of population change. A guess at absolute population numbers is made by comparing the radiocarbon evidence against church and census records from more recent centuries. “How many people lived in the past?” is a question archaeologists are often asked, but until now we had very few tools with which to form an answer.
The study was published in the Journal of Archaeological Science
Featured Image Source: Udemy