The mysterious discovery of the skull of an ape at the prehistoric site of Navan Fort in Ireland in the 1970s provoked widespread interest.

Given most people generally traveled small distances over their entire lives in the Iron Age the skull perplexed many. How could this have happened? A lost civilisation or prehistoric technology previously unknown?

While mystery theories are enticing the real story was more straight forward

Where was the ape found?

The ape was found at Navan Fort (Eamhain Mhacha in Gaelic) a large Iron Age earth work. Situated in modern county Armagh in the Ulster,  the complex was an important royal site of Early Ulster and one of the major centres in Iron Age Ireland. It had immense symbolic importance and is frequently mentioned in early histories.

For unknown reasons this complex was intentionally burned and covered in an earthen mound in the years after 100 BCE.

The ape skull was discovered beneath the earthen mound which allowed archaeologists to date it.

Well traveled

The ape had unquestionably traveled an enormous distance given the species originates in North Africa. The dominant power in that region at the time was the Carthaginian Empire (until it was destroyed by the Romans in 146 B.C.E.). The Carthaginian’s were outstanding traders and sailors with trading posts across the Mediterranean stretching into the Atlantic Ocean.

Indeed long distance trade across Europe had existed since at least the Bronze age (2500 – 500 B.C.E.). Artifacts found across the continent indicate there was frequent travel and trade routes stretching up from the continent across to Ireland.

Many objects from far flung destinations had reached Ireland long before the Ape skull. Bronze age (2500- 500 BCE) amber jewellery pieces from Scandavia have been found in Ireland. Likewise technological and cultural developments roughly in-line with European developments indicate there was constant contact between Ireland and the continent since deep in our prehistory. By 150 the Roman geographer Ptolemy was able to draw this impressively accurate map of Ireland.


So what does this all mean?

Western Historians and Archaeologists are prone to the “Great Civilisation” view of the world where nothing happens until a Greek, Roman, French, Spanish, or British Army arrives. This is a massive distortion of history. While the skull is fascinating we should look at it as an example of the early processes and trading routes that later cultures like the Romans built on rather than looking at it as something almost incomprehensible and mysterious.

Roman power did not fall from the sky. Like every other power they incorporated and copied existing trading routes and cultures – those same routes that brought the Ape to Ireland.

The ape is a reminder about the sophistication of prehistoric societies that could enable an object to travel such distances if perhaps slightly slower and on a more indirect route than their roman followers”.

If case you havent had a chance to hear it Episode 8 of the podcast is out now. Check it out here.

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0 comments on “The strange story of the ape in prehistoric Ireland.

  1. Ciarán Mc Mahon on

    You’ve taken a little of the romance off the story, so let me try to replace it with some comedy. Never mind how the skull got there in the first place, imagine the reaction of the first archaeologist to uncover it. Gently brushing away the dirt, and then… ‘oh.. oh…oh… Argh!’

  2. Sebas on

    Modern day Barcelona was out of the Phoenician or Carthaginian domains, it lays north of the Ebro and pretty close to Emporion, the most important Greek outpost in Iberia, so it may have an Iberic origin but I don’t think it became an important town until after the construction of Tarraco by the Romans (even if the legends says Hannibal itself founded the city and called it Barcino after his family name: Barca).

    Nice article!


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