The Neolithic - 4000-1800BC
real evidence of Orkney's human history begins to appear at some
point before the fourth millennium BC.
By this time the bands of hunter-gatherers of
the Mesolithic had gradually evolved into a agricultural society
and small communities of farmers were making their way across the
Pentland Firth from Caithness and western Scotland to settle in
the fertile northern islands.
As farmers, the nomadic lifestyle of the Mesolithic
had to cease as the raising of crops required permanent settlements
in areas of good soil. But despite the importance of agriculture,
the people of the Neolithic still relied on hunting and fishing
The daily way of life of these early farmers
can be gleaned from the remains of their houses, burial places
as well as the less grand, but equally important, materials such
as pottery, tools and refuse.
Places such as the Knap
of Howar on Papay and Skara Brae on the western shores of the Orkney
Mainland give clear insights into the domestic lives of the
farming communities. At the Knap o' Howar, for example, the bones
of domesticated cattle, sheep and pigs were found alongside those
of wild deer, whales and seals.
Their tradition of elaborate burials within chambered
cairns such as Cuween,
Wideford and Quanterness
also gives tantalising glimpses of these early Orcadians, their
beliefs and customs.
Cairns were an
essential part of life to the early farmers with men, women and
children of all ages buried within the chambered tombs they erected
Analysis of the bones found within these tombs
tells us of a population in which few people reached the age of
50 and in which those who survived childhood, usually died in their
Over the years the small farming communities gradually
developed into larger tribal units, perhaps
with an elite ruling class. These communities were capable of
constructing the major tribal monuments such as Maeshowe and the
Ring of Brodgar.
From around 2900BC the "heartland" of
the Orkney Mainland - the area surrounding the lochs of Stenness
and Harray - was a sacred
ceremonial meeting place.
This sacred centre remained important to the people
of Orkney for 2000 years until the once-common group burials were
replaced by the individual interments common of the Bronze Age.