Sunday 4 December 2016

Bear bone stored in cardboard box for over a century rewrites Irish history by 2,500 years

Published 21/03/2016 | 02:30

Some of the 1903 team outside the Alice and Gwendoline cave in Co Clare. Image courtesy of National Museum of Ireland
Some of the 1903 team outside the Alice and Gwendoline cave in Co Clare. Image courtesy of National Museum of Ireland
The Alice and Gwendoline cave where the bone was discovered. Photo: Terry Casserly and Tim O’Connell
Dr Marion Dowd examines the bear’s patella. Photo: James Connolly
Dr Marion Dowd at the cave. Photo: Terry Casserly & Tim O’Connell
The bear bone at a laboratory in IT Sligo. Photo: James Connolly

A bear bone stored in a cardboard box in the National Museum of Ireland for over 100 years has now revealed humans were active in Ireland 2,500 years earlier than first thought.

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The incredible discovery by Dr Marion Dowd and Dr Ruth Carden will rewrite Ireland's settlement history, with the bone indicating that humans were hunting in Ireland in 10,500BC - some 2,500 years earlier that previously thought.

Amazingly, the bear bone was discovered in Clare back in 1903 but was left for over a century in a storage box in the National Museum without being forensically tested. Dr Dowd of IT Sligo and Dr Carden of the National Museum decided to examine the bear bone and subject it to radiocarbon dating.

The results have astonished Ireland's scientific community.

Tests revealed that the patella, or knee bone, of the brown bear (Ursus Arctos) - which displayed clear marks of the animal having been butchered - dated to the Palaeolithic period around 10,500BC.

That is 8,000 years before the Egyptian pyramids were built and 7,500 years earlier than the first Stonehenge monuments.

Brown bears are believed to have become extinct in Ireland around 1,000BC.Until now, the earliest known human activity in Ireland was dated to the Mesolithic period around 8,000BC at Mount Sandel by the River Bann in Derry, close to a famous Iron Age fort.

Both scientists admitted that the Clare discovery would rewrite the history books.

"Archaeologists have been searching for the Irish Palaeolithic since the 19th Century, and now, finally, the first piece of the jigsaw has been revealed," Dr Dowd said.

"This find adds a new chapter to the human history of Ireland."

Dr Ruth Carden said the finding would provoke a discussion on Ireland's early human history.

"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," she said. The research paper, written by Dr Dowd and Dr Carden, was published yesterday in the prestigious international journal 'Quaternary Science Reviews' (QSR).

Dr Dowd is a lecturer in Prehistoric Archaeology at IT Sligo's School of Science and is a specialist in Irish cave archaeology.

The adult bear bone was one of thousands of artefacts originally discovered in Alice and Gwendoline Cave, Co Clare, in 1903 by a team of scientists.

In 2010 and 2011, Dr Carden, a National Museum research associate and animal osteologist, decided to re-examine the large collection of animal bones in storage. Dr Dowd noted Dr Carden's study and became interested in the bone and the precise era from which it dated.

The Royal Irish Academy agreed to provide funding for radiocarbon dating tests in Belfast - the only method of assigning the bone to a precise time period.

"When a Palaeolithic date was returned, it came as quite a shock," Dr Dowd said.

"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," she added.

Irish Independent

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