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ICE AGE | The First Irish:

New Evidence Rewrites the Story of the Earliest Modern Humans in Ireland

A brown bear kneecap found in a Co. Clare cave has rewritten the story of the first Irish

The year 2016 will go down as a watershed moment in Irish archaeology. A year when our understanding of Ireland's past was altered in a profound and exciting manner with the announcement of a groundbreaking discovery – that the island was inhabited by modern humans much earlier than previously thought. Up to this point, the earliest evidence for the presence of members of our species, Homo sapiens, in Ireland dated from only just over 10,000 years ago, early in the Holocene Epoch which began around 11,700 years ago and in which we still live. But now we know that these early Holocene Irish walked a land that had been inhabited long before them, the first Irish having roamed across the wild landscape of Ice Age Ireland.

To fully understand the magnitude of this discovery, we must first appreciate just how long the search has been for a pre-Holocene human presence in Ireland.

For many decades, the earliest evidence for the occupation of Ireland by modern humans came from the site of Mount Sandel in Derry, which was occupied from around 10,300–9,800 years ago. This was a time in human development known as the Mesolithic, or 'Middle Stone Age', which lies between the more recent Neolithic, or ‘New Stone Age’, that began in Ireland around 6,000 years ago, and the older Palaeolithic, or ‘Old Stone Age’ which stretches from the time hominins first made stone tools, over three million years ago, right up to the end of the Ice Age.

Map of the sites mentioned in the text, which include the fort of Dún Aonghasa on the right

This absence of evidence for an earlier, Palaeolithic, settlement of Ireland, especially late in the Ice Age, had always seemed strange as it was known that environmental conditions would have been suitable for human occupation at this time.

This seemed doubly confusing as evidence mounted proving that many of the lands surrounding Ireland were inhabited during the late, or Upper, Palaeolithic from around 15,000 years ago, with evidence of humans in coastal Wales, western Scotland, Scandinavia, and Iberia, and Ireland would have been reachable by boat from any one of these places.

Indeed, from the very earliest days of the search for the first Irish, it has been suspected that humans had been present in Ireland during the Palaeolithic, yet certain evidence of this always proved elusive. For instance, as far back as the 1860s and 1870s, flint assemblages which had been found in the north of the island were suspected to date from the late, or Upper, Palaeolithic. However, these turned out to date from the Mesolithic or Neolithic. Subsequently, true Palaeolithic artefacts were uncovered on the island, but each time these proved to be a false dawn, failing to cast light on a new view of human origins in Ireland.

Some, such as the flint flake found at Mell in Co. Louth in 1968, are certainly Palaeolithic in age but are thought to have been transported to Ireland from elsewhere by the action of ice sheets and geological processes. Others, including the Palaeolithic flint handaxe found at the great fort of Dún Aonghasa on the island of Inis Mór off the Galway coast, are thought to have ended up there due to the activities of antiquarians.

By the 1980s, then, over 100 years after the notion of a Palaeolithic human presence in Ireland had first been floated, the search for more ancient evidence for the first Irish had proved fruitless. This was all too apparent to the renowned archaeologist Peter Woodman, who sadly passed away in January of 2017. His work on Mount Sandel has been central to our understanding of the nature of the early Holocene Irish, and he summed up the situation in a contribution to an edited collection in 1986 with the almost despairing title ‘Why not an Irish Upper Palaeolithic?’. And for almost another three decades this dearth of evidence would plague investigators – was this absence of evidence really evidence of absence?

However, unbeknownst to Woodman and other Irish archaeologists, the evidence for an earlier Irish presence on the island had already been found. Indeed, the vital piece of evidence announced in 2016 which proved that humans were present in Ireland during the late Ice Age had been discovered over 100 years before, in a cave in the west of Ireland.

In 1903, Irish antiquarians undertook a well-organised excavation of Alice and Gwendoline Cave, near Ennis in Co. Clare. This cave was a treasure trove of material dating from the Ice Age up to much more recent times and many interesting bones and artefacts were found.

Superb photo by of Alice and Gwendoline cave, where the piece of evidence proving an earlier presence of modern humans in Ireland was found. (Copyright Terry Casserly and Tim O'Connell)

Among the several thousand bones recovered, some belonged to mammals known to have lived in late Ice Age Ireland, such as Arctic lemmings, giant Irish deer, and brown bears, while others belonged to later mammals, including many domesticated forms such as horses, pigs, sheep, and cattle. Alongside these bones, human artefacts from a variety of different periods were found, including stone scrapers, bone pins, an amber bead, a number of Viking arm rings, and even a coin of James II dating from the late seventeenth century.

One bone mentioned in the antiquarian report of the time was that of the patella, or kneecap, of a large brown bear, which was noted to have knife incisions on its surface. This would turn out to be the crucial piece of evidence proving a Palaeolithic human presence in Ireland, but it would be another century and more before this was recognised.

Photo of the brown bear kneecap where the cutmarks on its surface are clearly visible (Copyright James Connolly)

In the early 1920s, this brown bear kneecap, along with the rest of the bones from the excavation, was boxed up and stored in the National Museum of Ireland. There, it would rest in obscurity for decades while arguments over an Irish Palaeolithic ebbed and flowed, and the search for evidence disappointed time after time.

Then, in 2011, Dr Ruth Carden of the Natural History Division of the National Museum of Ireland rediscovered the bear kneecap during a project aimed at reassessing the antiquarian assemblages of animal bones in the museum. Noting how rare modified or butchered bear bones are in Ireland, her colleague, Dr Marion Dowd, of the School of Science in the Institute of Technology, Sligo, proposed that this, and two other bear bones (one from the nearby Catacombs Cave), should be radiocarbon dated.

Dr Marion Dowd in Alice and Gwendoline Cave (Copyright Terry Casserly and Tim O'Connell)

Neither Carden or Dowd could be sure of what dates the testing would reveal. Brown bears are known to have lived in Ireland not just in the late Ice Age but up to as recently as almost 3,000 years ago, the last of these great beasts having lumbered through the Irish landscape around two thousand years after the great tomb of Newgrange was built. Thus, it was possible that this brown bear kneecap could very well date from the Holocene. This uncertainty was compounded by the fact that bones and artefacts from different time periods were found mixed together in all levels of the cave.

However, the radiocarbon dating results and further investigation of the cutmarks on the kneecap proved sensational. Having sent the kneecap to two different labs for independent radiocarbon dating, one in Queen’s University Belfast and the other in Oxford University, both returned very similar dates, ranging from around 12,800 to 12,600 years ago.

Furthermore, the cutmarks on the kneecap were also examined by a number of independent experts, who concluded that the main ones on the face of it were ancient and had been made on fresh bone, so were not the result of the bone being scraped by natural processes after finding its way into the cave, but were made shortly after the bear had died. They also found that the cutmarks were most likely made by a long and sharp flint blade during either the process of dismembering the bear carcass or, more specifically, to remove the knee tendons for some use.

Although it is possible this modification of the bear kneecap could have been made in a settlement outside the cave, the marks on the bone do not suggest that it subsequently lay out in the weather or was transported into the cave by water or ice.

It seems more likely, then, that it was worked on by a human either inhabiting the cave or using it for certain activities, or, alternatively, that the cave was being used by a hibernating bear which was set upon by human hunters. Bears are known to have been hunted, butchered, and probably eaten in a variety of other Palaeolithic sites in Europe, and their fur, skin, bones, teeth, and tendons were likely used too. Evidence also suggests that bears were important in the symbolic and ritual lives of these ancient people.

So, the results from the scientific study of this bear kneecap had ground-breaking implications. They showed that up to 2,500 years before the resourceful hunter-gatherers which lived in a forest clearing overlooking the estuary of the River Bann in Mount Sandel 10,300 years ago, an earlier group of humans had harnessed the resources of a different Irish landscape, in late Ice Age Ireland.

These Upper Palaeolithic Irish were removed in time from their later Irish counterparts at Mount Sandel by as much as the Irish people of the early Iron Age, around 500 BC, are removed from the Irish who live on the island today. And though these Palaeolithic Irish may represent a ‘brief small-scale human incursion’ into the island, the recognition of their very existence has enormous implications for how modern Irish people can now understand the ancient past of their island.

‘Why not an Irish Upper Palaeolithic?’. Why not, indeed.

----- update 2021 -----

Thanks to the indefatigable efforts of Dr Ruth Carden, the earliest date for the first modern humans in Ireland has now been pushed back another 20,000 years to around 33,000 years ago due to the identification of a butchered reindeer bone from Castlepook Cave in North Cork.

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