Belfast Telegraph

Human history in Ireland rewritten thanks to butchered bear bone

By Ralph Riegel

Coleraine may have lost its claim to be the site of the earliest human activity in Ireland - thanks to a bear bone that lay in a cardboard box for a century.

The bone - stored in the Republic's National Museum of Ireland for more than 100 years - has now revealed humans were active in Ireland 2,500 years earlier than first thought.

Ireland's history will be rewritten after the incredible discovery by Dr Marion Dowd and Dr Ruth Carden indicated that humans were hunting in Ireland in 10,500BC, some 2,500 years earlier that previously thought.

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 Co Londonderry, close to a famous Iron Age fort.

Flint tools were found at the site at Coleraine, indicating that Stone Age hunters camped there to fish salmon in the natural weir.

An earthen fort there is thought to date back to Norman times.

Amazingly, the bear bone was discovered in Co Clare back in 1903.

But it 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 the scientific community.

Tests revealed that the patella or knee bone of the brown bear (Ursus Arctos) 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.

The Royal Irish Academy agreed to provide funding for radiocarbon dating tests on the bone 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 to extract the tendons.

"Yes, we expected a prehistoric date, but the Palaeolithic result took us completely by surprise."

But both Irish scientists admitted that the Clare discovery will now 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 Carden said the finding will provoke a new discussion on Ireland's early human history.

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 early scientists.

In 2010 and 2011 Dr Carden, a National Museum research associate and animal osteologist, decided to re-examine the large collection of bones in storage.

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

Belfast Telegraph


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