Niche construction and plant-use in the Mesolithic

  • James Perkins

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


In Britain and north-west Europe, the human-plant interactions of Mesolithic hunter-gatherers have been the focus of debate and study for nearly 60 years. The archaeobotanical and pollen records from these regions suggest that Mesolithic people actively constructed their own niches through the use and possible management of wild plants, and by creating and maintaining woodland clearances to increase their control over animal and plant resources. Recently, it was suggested that Mesolithic people in Ireland may have created their own niches through similar practices, but this hypothesis has not been tested. This project examines the human-plant interactions of Mesolithic people in Ireland and their environmental impacts through a systematic and critical review of the archaeobotanical evidence from Irish Mesolithic sites, as well as palynological investigations in the vicinity of three areas known to have been occupied in the Mesolithic. Overall, the archaeobotanical evidence from Mesolithic Ireland confirms that a wide range of trees, herbaceous plants, and wetland and aquatic taxa were potentially exploited for food, medicine and other uses. Charcoal and wood from these contexts attest to the fact that a broad spectrum of trees and shrubs were utilized for fuel, for constructing platforms, and for making fishing equipment and other artefacts. In some instances, certain taxa appear to have been specifically targeted for their burning or physical properties (e.g. oak for fuel, alder and hazel shoots for fish traps), but for some purposes plant-use was seemingly non selective (e.g. platforms). However, limitations in the archaeobotanical datasets and taphonomic factors have prevented the formulation of unequivocal interpretations regarding the absolute scale of hunter-gatherer plant-use/management in Ireland. Consequently, the environmental impacts of such practices could not be adequately determined. The pollen record highlights that even when plants were used on a repeated basis for food, fuel and timber, the activity had little impact on local vegetation. One episode of woodland disturbance was noted in the pollen record, hinting at the possible opening up of woodland, perhaps to attract wild boar. Yet, evidence for this practice in Ireland is at best equivocal. Compared to Britain and north-west Europe, signs of woodland disturbance in Mesolithic Ireland are relatively rare. It seems, therefore, that hunter-gatherers in Ireland did shape their environment through the utilisation of wild plants, but not to the same extent as their British and north-west European counterparts nor to such a degree to have left a clear signature in the pollen record.

Thesis embargoed until 31 July 2024.
Date of AwardJul 2022
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Queen's University Belfast
SponsorsNorthern Bridge Doctoral Training Partnership
SupervisorGill Plunkett (Supervisor) & Maarten Blaauw (Supervisor)


  • Mesolithic
  • plant use
  • woodland clearance
  • niche construction
  • plant management

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