History of Irish brown bear’s demise rewritten after bone discovery

4 Jul 2018

The famous Aillwee Cave brown bear skull, now found to be 10,400 years old. Image: Ken Williams

Remains of a bear found in one of Ireland’s biggest natural attractions reveal interesting new information on Stone Age Ireland.

Anyone who has paid a visit to Aillwee Cave in Co Clare will be familiar with one of its star attractions: the remains of a brown bear species that no longer roams the plains of the island of Ireland.

However, new analysis of the bear’s skull and the re-analysis of more than 450 bones by a team of researchers from IT Sligo and Queen’s University Belfast finds something rather unexpected: there are actually remains of two bears in the cave.

First discovered in 1976, the original bear remains were radiocarbon-dated to 10,400 years ago – the midst of Ireland’s Stone Age. The remains of the second bear are reportedly considerably younger, dated at 4,600 years old (placing them around the same time period as the famous Newgrange site) indicating that the cave was used by nomadic tribes in the region for thousands of years.

This newer bear was identified by the analysis of a bear tibia (leg bone) which showed the presence of a chop mark made by a human while butchering the carcass.

‘An unexpected bonus’

“To discover that this small assemblage of bear bones represented two bears instead of one is an unexpected bonus,” said Dr Marion Dowd, archaeologist at IT Sligo and the project’s lead.

At the time of the first bear’s death, Ireland was almost untouched by humans with fewer than 1,000 people believed to have been living on the island.

The nomadic tribes that arrived here would have moved about the landscape in search of food resources, which at the time ranged from wild pig to salmon, eel and hazelnuts.

“Brown bear roamed the prehistoric Irish landscape for thousands of years, only becoming extinct here during the Bronze Age around 1,000BC,” Dowd said.

“We have little evidence of direct contact between humans and bears, but the Neolithic butchered bear bone from Aillwee suggests the possibility that bear was occasionally hunted, or at least that bears that died by natural causes were exploited for their valuable furs, skins, fat and meat.”

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic