According to genetic and fossil evidence, early modern humans probably began spreading out of Africa about 100,000 years ago. Bones from Qafzeh and Skhul in Israel have been dated to about this time, and these people started to spread through Europe about 40,000 years ago. At the same time the Neanderthals, once widespread throughout Europe (including Wales) seem to have retreated to isolated areas of western Europe, finally becoming extinct about 30,000 years ago. A number of Palaeolithic cave paintings, dating from about 30,000 to 10,000 years ago, have been found in France, providing a fascinating glimpse into the art and possibly the beliefs of these early people.
In Ulster, the first evidence of settlement is relatively late, after the end of the last ice age. From the archaeological evidence, it is not possible to tell exactly where the first inhabitants came from. The rise in sea levels after the ice age had probably covered the land bridges between Great Britain and Ireland, but parts of the Irish Sea would have been narrower than they are today. It seems likely that groups of people crossed the sea in small boats from the west coast of Britain.
In Britain, later Mesolithic toolkits include many scrapers for cleaning the hides of wild cattle and red deer. In Ireland, there were no wild cattle, and red deer seem to have played a much less important role in Mesolithic life. In Ulster, the earlier microlithic tools were replaced by larger axes made of flint, schist or mudstone. Sites on raised beaches along the Antrim coast were probably only occupied for short periods of time to manufacture flint axes. Most inland sites are on rivers, showing the importance of fishing as a seasonal occupation.
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