The recent discovery that humans were present in late Ice Age Ireland has thrown up a range of interesting questions regarding their possible influence on the mammals of the island. For instance, it is now at least conceivable that some of the mammals to recolonise Ireland once the ice sheets retreated following the Last Glacial Maximum (c. 26,000–19,000 years ago) did not arrive by natural means but were perhaps transported by humans, either intentionally or as stowaways on boats. Certainly, a number of mammals, possibly including the red deer, are thought to have been introduced to Ireland by humans later, in the Holocene (c. 11,700 years ago–Present). However, this early human occupation of Ireland also leaves us with a question of a darker nature: did the earliest Irish contribute to the extinction of the giant Irish deer?
Humans have certainly been implicated in the disappearance of many other great mammals during the late Ice Age and into the Holocene. At this time, what could without exaggeration be called a giant apocalypse took place across the lands of the Earth, with many of the largest mammals disappearing from almost every continent. There is heated debate over what were the true causes of this cull of mammalian titans, but some evidence seems to point the finger of blame at least partly towards modern humans and their spread across the planet.
Over the coming months, then, we will take a look at the latest evidence regarding the extinctions of these mammalian giants, the so-called megafauna, in each great region of the world, in so doing assessing the likelihood of human culpability and thus the possibility that the first Irish had a hand in the extirpation of the giant Irish deer from the land they are named after. To do this, I will largely be relying on a superb review of the evidence relating to the megafaunal extinctions produced by Dr Anthony Stuart that was published in the Geological Journal last year (2015).
This is a dark topic but also a fascinating one, full of colossal, archaic, and exotic beasts and epic human migrations, and hopefully the 10-question quiz below will whet your appetite to know more.