The earliest known inhabitants of Wicklow came from Britain and settled between the mountains and the sea along the east coast between 7000 and 4000 BC. Historians call this period the Mesolithic or Mid Stone Age. They were nomadic hunter-gatherers, making weapons and tools out of stone, in particular flint. They had little impact on the landscape unlike the farmers which were to follow.
By 4000-2000 BC west Wicklow was more heavily populated than the coast. Farming, and a more settled lifestyle, was emerging. This period is known as the Neolithic or Late Stone Age. The forests that originally cloaked the mountains were cleared with sophisticated stone tools. The mountains of Wicklow to this day have little native forest and are blanketed with heath and bog. Ongoing burning of the uplands by farmers to improve grazing for their livestock prevents forest from recolonizing the uplands.
Along with changing the vegetation of the mountains these settlers also left another type of mark on the landscape, large burial tombs. They came together in communities to build large tombs out of stone. Archaeologists call them Megalithic (big stone) tombs. Three distinctive types of megalithic tombs occur in Wicklow: portal tombs (dolmens), passage tombs and wedge tombs. There are eleven known megalithic tomb sites in the county - nine of them in west Wicklow. The population must have been quite large to enable such enormous tombs to be constructed. Engineering expertise was also needed in their construction - the cap stones on portal tombs weigh several tonnes. To learn more, see our page on Megalithic Tombs
Commencing around 2000 BC (the start of the Bronze Age), the variety and complexity or monuments visibly increases. Wicklow contains some of Ireland's finest examples, including tombs, standing stones, stone circles and rock art. It is often difficult to fully understand their purpose but they often had both spiritual and practical functions. The lowlands to the west of the Wicklow Mountains are particularly rich in monuments, indicating a thriving and highly organised society.