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Bear bone discovery pushes back date of human existence in Ireland by 2,500 years

A bone fragment discovered 103 years ago in a Clare cave is about to re-write Irish history.

Scientists were astounded when tests showed the fragment, from a butchered brown bear, confirmed that humans were active in Ireland 2,500 years earlier than previously suspected.

The fragment was stored in a cardboard box in the National Museum for over 100 years but had only been subjected to detailed forensic tests over the past two years.

The incredible discovery by Dr Marion Dowd and Dr Ruth Carden will now re-write 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.


Bear bone Credit: Storylab

Bear bone Credit: Storylab

Bear bone Credit: Storylab

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 back 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 will now rewrite the history books.

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“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 Marion Dowd with the bear bone Credit: Storylab

Dr Marion Dowd with the bear bone Credit: Storylab

Dr Marion Dowd with the bear bone Credit: Storylab

Dr Ruth Carden said the finding will provoke a new 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.

“This 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!”

The research paper written by Dr Dowd and Dr Carden was published today 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 early scientists.

They published a report on their investigations and noted that the bear bone had clear knife marks, indicating it had been butchered.

However, the bone was stored in a collection at the National Museum since the 1920s.

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.

She studied the brown bear bone and documented it.

Dr Dowd noted Dr Carden’s study and became interested in the bone and the precise era it dated from.

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.

The results were astonishing.

“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.

A second round of radiocarbon tests confirmed that the bear died circa 10,500BC.

Further analysis was ordered on the visible cut marks on the bone – and experts from the British Museum, University of York and European

University in Hungary revealed the marks were made on fresh bone and dated to the same era.

“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,” Dr Dowd said.

“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.”

The experts are now hoping for funding to conduct further tests on the Clare cave material found in 1903.

They also hope to conduct a detailed examination of the cave itself using modern forensic equipment.

The 1903 excavation team included notable scientists such as Robert F. Scharff, Thomas J. Westropp and Richard J. Ussher.

They named the Clare cave after two women who lived in Edenvale House, the demesne on which the cave was located - sisters Alice Jane and Gwendoline Stacpoole.

The discovery mirrors major breakthroughs in the UK which have pushed the evidence of human history back to earlier eras.

National Museum of Ireland natural history keeper, Nigel T. Monaghan, said they hold two million specimens in storage.

“We never know what may emerge (from research and tests),” he said.

In 2013, a cache of flint tools unearthed on the Isle of Islay in Scotland confirmed local human activity in the Palaeolithic era.

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