Secrets of the past unlocked in old bones

Bones can reveal a lot about the animals we once shared the planet with, the ones humans never got to meet and even a lot about the human race we are as yet unaware of, says Dick Warner.

Irish caves, and particularly bones from caves, are a rich source of information about our past. They can tell us about extinct animals and birds and they can tell us about our own human ancestors.

The trouble is that it’s almost too rich a source. Tens of thousands of bones and bone fragments have been collected. They get catalogued and stored away but, at any given time, there are always far more bones than there are people who can identify them and understand their significance. It’s a fairly specialised branch of archaeology.

In the 1990s, the Irish Quaternary Fauna Project set about sorting through some of the backlog. A 9,000-year-old bone from Kilgreany Cave in Co Waterford turned out to belong to a Eurasian lynx. They are wild cats around the size of a large dog — adult males weigh about 30kg and stand about 70cm high at the shoulder.

They were known to have become extinct in Britain some time between 1,300 and 1,500 years ago and they still exist on the continent, though they’re now rare in western Europe. Nobody before this discovery dreamed that they had once roamed Ireland.

Before the positive identification of the Waterford cave bone, the idea would have been dismissed because the principal prey of the lynx is roe deer, a small species that never made it to this country.

In the early years of the 20th century, Richard Ussher mounted an expedition to collect bones from caves in Co Clare. He sent 70,000 of them back to the National Museum in Dublin. The hard-pressed museum staff duly catalogued, boxed, and stored the hoard.

It was noted that one bone, the patella or knee cap of a brown bear, had knife marks on it. Nobody paid much attention to this because it was known that Mesolithic hunter-gatherers and bears had coexisted in Ireland for millennia.

Over 100 years later, two archaeologists, Marion Down and Ruth Carden, had another look at this bone and sent it off for radiocarbon dating. The result was so astonishing that they sent it off to a second laboratory to have it checked.

The same answer came back. The bone was 12,500 years old and had been part of a fresh bear carcass when it had been butchered. This meant that it was not Mesolithic, it was Palaeolithic and by far the earliest evidence of human settlement on this island ever discovered. In fact, it pushed the story of the Irish back by 2,500 years.

The evidence was checked by leading experts round the world and finally published in a scientific paper last year, 113 years after the bone was found and the knife marks noted. It has fundamentally changed early Irish archaeology. What other secrets lie in dusty boxes in museum cellars and warehouses? We need more experts in old bones.


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