A bear bone from Clare has rewritten Irish human history by 2,500 years

21 Mar 2016

Dr Marion Dowd with the bear bone determined butchered 12,500 years ago by human hands. Image via James Connolly/Storylab

A monumental new discovery for Irish history has been made by archaeologists working on an ancient bear bone, which shows humans existed on this island 2,500 years earlier than once thought.

Despite the bear bone found in the caves of Clare sitting in a collection at the National Museum of Ireland for nearly a century, researchers from IT Sligo have only now revealed the almost-forgotten bone to be one of the most important artefacts for the history of humans in Ireland.

Our understanding of human settlement on this island up to now has been that the first of our species arrived around 8,000 BC, with this information gleaned from the discovery of a site at Mount Sandel in Derry in the 1970s.

Yet by using radiocarbon dating on the butchered brown bear bone, archaeologist Dr Marion Dowd and her associate Dr Ruth Carden have been able to determine that this bear was killed by human hands as early as 12,500 years ago, meaning that humans in Ireland existed 2,500 years earlier than we thought.

Having concluded that the marks on the bear bone were made by a rudimentary knife, the pair determined that the cut marks were made on fresh bone, confirming that the cut marks were of the same date as the bear bone and, therefore, that humans were in Ireland during the Palaeolithic period.

‘A new chapter to the human history of Ireland’

It was then sent on to the radiocarbon dating lab in Queen’s University Belfast and independent analysis from three other bone specialists found that the bones could indeed by dated to 12,500 years ago.

“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,” said Dowd on the discovery.

As for what the pair’s future research will cover, and what this find means for Irish archaeology as whole, 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 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 pair has now published its findings in the international scientific journal Quaternary Science Reviews (QSR).

Humans in Ireland infographic

Infographic via Storylab

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic