THE EXAMINATION OF a bear bone that lay in a cardboard box at the National Museum of Ireland for nearly 100 years could lead to the re-writing of Irish history.
The remarkable archaeological discovery was originally found in a Co Clare cave by scientists, and has pushed back the date of human existence in Ireland by 2,500 years.
Radiocarbon dating of the butchered brown bear bone has established that humans were on the island of Ireland some 12,500 years ago.
The discovery was made by Dr Marion Dowd, an archaeologist at IT Sligo, and Dr Ruth Carden, a research associate with the National Museum of Ireland.
The adult bear bone was one of thousands of bones originally discovered in Alice and Gwendoline Cave, Co Clare in 1903 by a team of scientists.
“A whole new chapter to Irish history”
Since the 1970s, the oldest evidence of human occupation on the island of Ireland has been at Mount Sandel in Co Derry, with the site dated at 8,000 BC. This is in the Mesolithic period.
“We know humans have been in Ireland for 10,000 years,” Dr Dowd told TheJournal.ie. “If we compare that to Britain, people have been in Britain for 750,000 years so there is a massive difference, and archaeologists have always felt there might be something earlier in Ireland but we haven’t been able to prove it until now.”
These paleolithic people would have been hunter-gatherers who lived in small nomadic groups. They were throughout Europe during the paleolithic era.
“This doesn’t happen too often in anyone’s career,” said Dowd. “It’s really exciting, it’s really superb, especially as an archaeologist – this is the kind of thing as a student you learn: ‘Oh, there were no Irish paleolithic people’, so it’s kind of overwhelming really to find [this] evidence.”
Dr Ruth Carden said: “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 colonisation and local extinctions of species to Ireland.
This paper [published by Carden and Dowd this weekend] 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!
Dowd said that this discovery is the starting point, and means there is “a whole new chapter to Irish history, to the history of humans in Ireland”.
The next steps
She said the next steps will include looking at older collections and re-examining them, re-excavating sites and excavating soil deposits at the cave where the bear bones were found.
“There are fabulous collections in the National Museum that haven’t been looked at in decades or over a century, particularly material in caves,” she said.
She added that Carden has been re-analysing bones, which is turning up new information.
“It’s not just about finding new sites, it’s looking with fresh eyes and scientific technology,” she said. “The team who found the bear patella in 1903, they were top scientists at the time. They mentioned in their report about this bear patella and about the cut marks but they had no idea of radiocarbon back then.”
“My mind went blank”
When she got the first email back with a radiocarbon date, Dowd was shocked. “I think my mind went blank – it was quite overwhelming,” she recalled.
She said they “really needed to interrogate the evidence” because what it was suggesting was so groundbreaking, and so sent it on to be radiocarbon dated again.
Dowd and Carden’s paper on the discovery was published over the weekend in the international scientific journal Quaternary Science Reviews (QSR).
In 2010 and 2011 Carden was re-analysing its animal bone collections from early cave excavations. She came across the bear bone and documented it along with many other bones.
Dowd became interested in the butchered bear patella and, together with Carden, the pair sought funding from the Royal Irish Academy for radiocarbon dating. This was carried out by the Chrono Centre at Queen’s University Belfast.
“When a Palaeolithic 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 Palaeolithic result took us completely by surprise,” said Dowd.
A second sample was sent to the University of Oxford for radiocarbon dating to test the validity of the initial result. Both dates indicated human butchery of the bear about 12,500 years ago.
The bone was then sent to three bone specialists for independent analysis of the cut marks: Dr Jill Cook at the British Museum in London; Professor Terry O’Connor at the University of York and Professor Alice Choyke at the Central European University in Hungary.
The experts were unaware of the radiocarbon dating results prior to their examinations but all determined that the cut marks were made on fresh bone, confirming that the cut marks were of the same date as the patella, and therefore that humans were in Ireland during the Palaeolithic period.
“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,” explains Dowd.
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.
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.”
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.