Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 578:

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 578.

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 villages.

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 Ireland today.

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 work.

(Theme music)

Derriman, P., Bog Irish. Qantas Airways, July/August, 1991, pp. 16-22.

The Ceide Fields home page is: http://homepages.iol.ie/~stmrysba/ceide2.htm

The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.

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