Bear bone rewrites human history in Ireland

Butchered kneecap puts people on island earlier than thought

bear bone

 IRELAND’S OLDEST  Stone-tool marks on a brown bear’s kneecap provide the earliest evidence of humans in Ireland, between about 12,800 and 12,600 years ago.

James Connolly

In a bit of Irish luck, archaeologists have found evidence of the Emerald Isle’s earliest known humans. A brown bear’s kneecap excavated in 1903, featuring stone tool incisions, pushes back the date that humans set foot in Ireland by as many as 2,500 years.

Radiocarbon dating at two independent labs places the bone’s age between about 12,800 and 12,600 years old, say Marion Dowd of the Institute of Technology, Sligo in Ireland and Ruth Carden of the National Museum of Ireland in Dublin. Melting glaciers and milder temperatures in northwestern Europe at that time made it easier for humans to reach Ireland by boat to hunt game, at least for several weeks at a time, the researchers propose in the May 1 Quaternary Science Reviews.

Until now, the oldest signs of people on Ireland came from a hunter-gatherer camp dating to about 10,290 years ago.

Carden discovered the brown bear’s kneecap while studying bones that had been packed away in boxes in the 1920s, after the bones’ 1903 discovery at Ireland’s Alice and Gwendoline Cave.

DIGGING THE PAST Members of a 1903 excavation team found the bear bone now determined to contain the oldest signs of humans in Ireland. National Museum of Ireland

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.

More Stories from Science News on Archaeology

From the Nature Index

Paid Content