In one of the most significant archaeological discoveries here in decades, radiocarbon dating of a butchered brown bear’s knee bone found in a cave in Clare over a century ago has pushed the date of the first human occupation of Ireland back to the Palaeolithic period some 12,500 years ago.
The remarkable discovery by Marion Dowd, an archaeologist at IT Sligo and a specialist in Irish cave archaeology, and Ruth Carden, a research associate with the National Museum of Ireland, is set to rewrite Irish pre-history and the story of human colonisation of the island. Since the 1970s, the oldest evidence of human occupation here has been the hunter-gatherer settlement of Mount Sandel on the banks of the River Bann in Derry, dated to 8,000BC in the Mesolithic period.
However, the new analysis on the bear bone proves that humans were living here some 12,500 years ago.
“Archaeologists have been searching for the Irish Palaeolithic since the 19th century, and now, finally, the first piece of the jigsaw has been revealed,” said Ms Dowd. Details of the discovery were published at the weekend in the international scientific journal Quaternary Science Reviews.
The bone at the centre of this breakthrough was one of thousands discovered in Alice and Gwendoline Cave in Co Clare in 1903. Reports from the time noted seven knife marks on the bone.
The bone, stored in a cardboard box at the National Museum of Ireland ever since, was spotted by Ms Carden during reanalysis of the museum’s cave find collections in 2010 and 2011.
She and Ms Dowd sought funding from the Royal Irish Academy for radiocarbon dating, carried out by the Chrono Centre at Queen’s University Belfast. Ms Dowd said the results came as a shock: “Yes, we expected a prehistoric date, but the Palaeolithic result took us completely by surprise.”
A second sample and separate tests on the bone marks by three bone specialists confirmed the findings.