Today, we visit a 5000-year-old ecological mistake.
The University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
The Ceide Fields are huge
peat bogs that stretch along a promontory in
Northwest Ireland. These bogs are a peculiar,
man-induced phenomenon. Five thousand years ago,
stone-age farmers cleared trees from the land.
Before they did, the trees held most of the
rainfall. Now rain could penetrate the ground.
Worse yet, rainfall increased during those years.
Mosses grew, and the wet land turned to peat.
Those farmers had unwittingly attacked the
environment. Now the environment attacked them.
Bogs took over -- here and many other places in
Ireland as well. Bogs wrecked the land and drove
the farmers out. Peat filled in over the abandoned
Now we cut away the peat. We meet the people who
once lived here. These late Paleolithic farmers
crossed the Irish Sea from England. They brought
their dogs and cattle with them. They used the
cattle both for food and as draft animals. The
dogs? Who knows! Maybe they were just friends.
The village scatters along the cliff. It's divided
by stone fences. These people owned their land and
built individual houses. The houses were a mixture
of wood and stone.
There's no evidence of defense. Each house is
isolated and unprotected. It had to have been a
harmonious life in a cooperative community.
Peat preserves dead bodies, but we find no bodies
here -- at least no human ones. We do find a stray
pig, thousands of years old, but no humans. We also
find elaborate tombs with human ashes in them.
These people clearly had religious traditions for
disposing of their dead.
They had no written language yet. But they did have
art. We find fragments of decorated pottery.
So, for two hundred or so years, this hamlet
flourished on the edge
of a cliff above the harsh North Atlantic.
Three hundred or so people cleared trees, tilled
their gardens, and watched the seasons turn.
Before the Pharaohs, this gentle people lived a
gentle life. Then the peat sent them away and
created the lovely, stark, green-brown gorse that
shifts its colors under the slate-gray skies of
Of course, they drove themselves away because they
couldn't know the consequences of their modest
assault on the environment. And in that, our
kinship with these old Irishmen might be stronger
than we like to think.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds