Bear Bone Adds 2,500 Years to History of Humans in Ireland

Carbon dating of a bear bone covered in cut marks pushes human habitation of Ireland back into the Paleolithic Era

Brown Bear Patella
The brown bear patella researchers dated to 12,500 years ago Storylab

The history of humans living in Ireland just added 2,500 years to its timeline, but the discovery wasn’t made in a peat bog or after excavating tons of dirt—it was found in a cardboard box.

In 2010 and 2011, animal osteologist Ruth Carden of the National Museum of Ireland began re-analyzing bones collected from cave excavations in the early 20th century when she came across part of a knee from a brown bear with several cut marks on it, according to a press release from the Sligo Institute of Technology.

Carden brought the bone to the attention of Marion Dowd, a specialist in cave archeology at Sligo. Dowd was intrigued, so the two sent samples to Queen’s University in Belfast and later to Oxford University to get the age of the samples.

The data from both labs showed that the bear was butchered 12,500 years ago, or 2,500 years before the earliest previous evidence of human habitation on the Emerald Isle. Three specialists additionally confirmed that the cut marks were made on fresh bone, further suggesting that humans were present in Ireland much earlier than previously thought.

“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 the press release. “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.”

Researchers originally excavated the bone in question in 1903 in Alice and Gwendoline Cave outside Ennis in County Clare. Though they noted the cut marks in their examination of the bones, they had no way of dating the bone, and stored it away with thousands of other remains collected from the cave in cardboard boxes—where it remained until Carden rediscovered it.

“When a Palaeolithic date was returned, it came as quite a shock,” Dowd says in the press release, who along with Carden published their results this week in the journal Quaternary Science Reviews. “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 Paleolithic result took us completely by surprise.”

Besides the human timeline, Carden says the find may also impact the zoological timeline of Ireland. “This is very exciting, since up to now we have not factored in a possible ‘human-dimension’ when we are studying patterns of colonization and local extinctions of species to Ireland,” she says in the press release. “This paper should generate a lot of discussion within the zoological research world."  She emphasizes: "it’s time to start thinking outside the box.”

Before this find, the human history in Ireland stretched back to 8,000 B.C. based on a small human settlement found at Mount Sandal in Derry County in the 1970s. But Dowd tells Marese McDonagh at the Irish Times that it may extend much further back in time, especially since there is evidence that humans visited and lived in nearby Great Britain off and on for over 700,000 years.

This story isn't over yet. Scientists will continue analyzing the bones from Alice and Gwendoline Cave and may even return to the site to excavate sediments there, Dowd explains in a video about her research. 

Yet more intriguing finds may be hiding in the collections. “The National Museum of Ireland…holds collections of approximately two million specimens, all are available for research and we never know what may emerge,” says Nigel T. Monaghan natural history keeper at the Museum. “Radiocarbon dating is something never imagined by the people who excavated these bones in caves over a century ago, and these collections may have much more to reveal about Ireland’s ancient past.”

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