Saturday, April 30, 2016

Re-writing Ireland's Ancient History

Fragment of Bear Bone from Cave
County Clare
The recent announcement that scientists had dated a fragment of bear bone to 10,500 BC, thereby, pushing back the date for human occupation in Ireland by 2,500 years, has caused quite a stir in the academic community. Until now, the earliest known human activity in Ireland was dated to the Mesolithic period around 8,000BC at Mount Sandel in Derry.

Remarkably, the bear bone was discovered in a cave in County Clare in 1903 but lay for over a century in a storage box in the National Museum of Ireland. Dr Marion Dowd of IT Sligo and Dr Ruth Carden of the National Museum decided to examine the bone and subject it to radiocarbon dating. Dr Dowd is a lecturer in Prehistoric Archaeology at IT Sligo’s School of Science and is a specialist in Irish cave archaeology.

Excavation in 1903
Tests revealed that the patella or knee bone of the brown bear – which showed clear marks of the animal having been butchered - dated back to the Palaeolithic period around 10,500 BC. Brown bears are believed to have become extinct in Ireland around 1,000BC. This incredible discovery is set to re-write Ireland’s settlement history showing that humans were hunting in Ireland much earlier than previously thought. A second round of radiocarbon tests confirmed that the bear died circa 10,500BC.

“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,” said Dr Dowd.

Further analysis of the cut marks on the bone by experts from the British Museum, University of York and European University in Hungary revealed the marks were made on fresh bone and dated from the same era. Repeated attempts by early hunters to cut through the tough knee joint left seven marks on the bone surface. Experts think that the implement used would probably have been something like a long flint blade.

As the bone was in fresh condition it is thought that these early hunters were carrying out activities in the immediate vicinity - perhaps butchering a bear inside the cave or at the cave entrance. Dr Dowd believes they were extracting the tendons for use as string or for sewing, while the bear carcass would also have provided food and fur.

Some 12,500 years ago the last Ice Age was coming to an end in Ireland. As the ice retreated northwards, humans followed the thaw from central and southern Europe. Ireland was still connected to Britain at this point, as was Britain to mainland Europe. Ireland became an island about 8,700 years ago, as the last land bridges between here and Scotland were washed over.

It appears that archaeological text books may have to be re-written to reflect these new findings. This is particularly exciting given that experts have only recently started to appreciate the extent of human occupation in Ireland during the Mesolithic or Middle Stone Age (8,000 – 4,000 BC) with about twenty important sites identified around Ireland. It has been argued that evidence for the Mesolithic Period in Ireland has gone largely unrecognised and where this exists the extent of the evidence has been overlooked.

Where did the first Irish settlers come from? Scholars believe that the most likely ‘homelands’ of the earliest human colonists in Ireland are Scotland, Isle of Man and Wales.

Archaeologists now hope to conduct a detailed examination of the cave itself using modern forensic equipment. Meanwhile, we wait with bated breath for the National Museum of Ireland to give up more of its fascinating secrets.

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