Long-distance Neolithic immigrant

How did red deer get to the Outer Hebrides and Orkney? Deer swim across rivers but they can’t tackle wide sea channels.

They must, therefore, have been brought to the islands in boats. Deer were a source of food and skins long ago.

Tools were fashioned from their bones sinews and antlers. Maes Howe and Skara Brae on Orkney, and the Callenish standing stones of Lewis, are among Europe’s most impressive Neolithic remains.

Their creators, ‘no petty people’, must surely have been able to transport deer from the Scottish mainland. Surprisingly, a paper just published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, claims that the island deer didn’t come from there.

David Stanton and colleagues from Cardiff University compared the DNA of red deer on the Hebrides and Orkney with that of mainland British Irish and Scandinavian ones.

The island deer, they found, are not closely related to Scottish animals, nor were their ancestors Irish or Norwegian. Humans, the researchers conclude, had ‘introduced red deer from a greater distance’.

This involved ‘long-distance maritime travel by Neolithic people to the outer Scottish Isles from an unknown source’.

The Cardiff results also confirm previous studies identifying ‘mainland Britain as a source of red deer introductions into Ireland.’

The history of the species in Ireland is complicated. Deer here, prior to the last glaciation, seem to have perished during the great freeze-up.

They reappeared when the ice retreated. Sea levels were much lower then than they are now; perhaps deer were able to swim across the North Channel from Galloway to Antrim.

They may have walked across the last land-bridges joining Ireland and Britain or sat out the cold spell in ‘refugia’ beyond the southern limit of the great ice mass.

We may never know what actually happened but the red deer’s recovery here was short-lived.

Around 12,900 years ago a cold period, known as the Nahangan Stadial, set in. It lasted a thousand years after which the Irish red deer was extinct.

The species, it seems, was absent from Ireland for the next seven millennia; at any rate, no evidence of its presence has come to light.

Bone samples, about 4,190 years old, have been found. This suggests that, as in the Scottish islands, deer were introduced here during the late Neolithic period.

Their descendents have been with us ever since.

During and after the great famine of the 1840’s, red deer were hunted to the verge of extinction to feed a starving population.

Only around Killarney did a sizeable population survive.

The deer found elsewhere in the country today are derived mainly from late 19th Century introductions.

In 2012, Dr Ruth Cardan compared DNA samples taken from ancient deer bones in the National Museum’s collection and samples from deer living here and elsewhere in Europe.

She and her team concluded that the ancestors of the Killarney herd had been introduced from Britain about 5,000 years ago.

The red deer of the southwest, she wrote, are ‘a unique population within an Irish context’ and should be given ‘special conservation and management status within Ireland.’

In 43 AD, the Emperor Claudius, invading Britain, transported horses, elephants, and camels across the English Channel; the Romans had large seaworthy vessels.

Those available to Neolithic people 2,000 years previously, were in a different league.

The Annaghkeen log-boat, found in Lough Corrib, was fashioned from the trunk of a huge oak around 4,500 years ago.

It and the Lurgan Canoe were, presumably, state-of-the-art vessels for their time. Red deer stags are large powerful animals, well capable of killing a man.

Out-riggers may have helped stabilise such boats or two of them could be lashed together as catamarans.

Nevertheless, the ‘long-distance maritime (transport) by Neolithic people’ of even young deer must have been precarious.

  • David Stanton et al. Colonisation of the Scottish islands via long-distance Neolithic transport of red deer. Proceedings of the Royal Society B. April 2016.


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