A small fragment of a brown bear bone sitting in a box from 100 years ago is now about to rewrite Ireland’s history. This pushes back the date of early human occupation by 2,500 years.
The bone was discovered in a remote cave in western Ireland and then placed in a box at the National Museum of Ireland where it sat for 100 years. Recent radiocarbon dating of the butchered bone has revealed humans were present in Ireland around 12,500 years ago — that’s 2,500 earlier than previously believed.
The oldest evidence of human occupation on Ireland was found at Mount Sandel in Co. Derry in the 1970s. The site was dated to the Mesolithic period (8,000 B.C.) this indicated humans had occupied the island for around 10,000 years.
However, armed with the new analysis of the bear’s knee bone, researchers believe it gives undisputed evidence that people existed during the preceding Paleolithic period in 10,500 B.C. (12,500 years ago). The bone was originally found in Co. Clare in 1903.
For archaeologists who have spent years searching for earlier indications of human’s existence, this comes as a major development.
Dr. Marion Dowd, an archaeologist at IT Sligo, and Dr. Ruth Carden, a Research Associate with the National Museum of Ireland made the discovery, with Dr. Dowd saying in a statement:
“Archaeologists have been searching for the Irish Palaeolithic since the 19th century, and now, finally, the first piece of the jigsaw has been revealed. This find adds a new chapter to the human history of Ireland.”
The bone came from an adult bear and was one of thousands that were originally discovered in Alice and Gwendoline Cave, Co. Clare. The team of early scientists did note that the bone had knife marks in a report of their investigations.
The bone was stored in a collection at the museum since the 1920s. Then, in 2010 and 2011, Carden, an animal osteologist, while re-analyzing animal bone collections from early cave excavations at the museum, came across the bone.
Being a specialist in cave archaeology, Dowd became interested in the butchered bear knee, and together with Carden they sought funding from the Royal Irish Academy for radiocarbon dating.
The radiocarbon dating was carried out by the Chrono Center at Queen’s University Belfast, Dowd explains their surprise, saying:
“When a Paleolithic date was returned, it came as quite a shock. Here we had evidence of someone butchering a brown bear carcass and cutting through the knee probably to extract the tendons. Yes, we expected a prehistoric date, but the Paleolithic result took us completely by surprise.”
A second sample was then sent to the University of Oxford for radiocarbon dating to test the legitimacy of the initial result, where it was confirmed that the bear was butchered around 12,500 years ago. The bone was then sent for independent analysis of the cut marks by 3 bone specialists.
The experts were not told of the radiocarbon dating results, with all 3 determining the cut marks had been made on fresh bone. This confirmed to the researchers that the cut marks were of the same date as the patella, therefore proving humans were in Ireland during the Paleolithic period.
Dowd explained in a statement from the Institute of Technology Sligo:
“This made sense as the location of the marks spoke of someone trying to cut through the tough knee joint, perhaps someone who was inexperienced.
“In their repeated attempts, they left seven marks on the bone surface. The implement used would probably have been something like a long flint blade. The bone was in fresh condition meaning that people were carrying out activities in the immediate vicinity — possibly butchering a bear inside the cave or at the cave entrance.”
“From a zoological point of view, this is very exciting, since up to now we have not factored in a possible ‘human-dimension’ when we are studying patterns of colonization and local extinctions of species to Ireland.
“This paper should generate a lot of discussion within the zoological research world and it’s time to start thinking outside the box… or even dismantling it entirely!”
Dr. Dowd and Dr. Carden are now hoping to get funding to carry out further analysis of other material recovered during the 1903 excavations, the cave itself, and other potential cave sites around the country, according to the Institute of Technology Sligo.
Nigel T. Monaghan, Keeper, Natural History Division of the National Museum of Ireland, said:
“The National Museum of Ireland — Natural History, holds collections of approximately two million specimens, all are available for research and we never know what may emerge. Radiocarbon dating is something never imagined by the people who excavated these bones in caves over a century ago, and these collections may have much more to reveal about Ireland’s ancient past.”