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Date for First Irish Pushed Back 20,000 Years

Earliest date for the presence of humans in Ireland has been pushed back an astonishing 20,000 years with the identification of butchering marks on a reindeer bone found over 100 years ago

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MiniMag | April 2021

Welcome to
The Evolution of Ireland MiniMag for April 2021

This month has been an incredibly interesting one as regards the story of Ireland's humans, with not one but two huge discoveries regarding modern humans' earliest invasions of Europe and Ireland.

The first of these relates to a discovery that was the Discovery of the Month in last May's MiniMag – that of the earliest fossils of modern humans in Europe at Bacho Kiro Cave in Bulgaria, which date to around 46,000 years ago. A new genetic analysis of these fossils has revealed some amazing things about these earliest Homo sapiens in Europe, showing that they were more closely related to the modern people of East Asia and the Americas than to modern Europeans. Also, this analysis has greatly bolstered the evidence of interbreeding between early Homo sapiens in Europe and Neanderthals, with all of the Bacho Kiro individuals found to have had Neanderthal ancestors five to seven generations back in their family line.

However, even this revelatory discovery has been trumped by an even greater one, which strikes even closer to the heart of the story of the Irish – relating not to when members of their species first appeared in Europe but to when they first appeared in Ireland itself, which we now know was far closer to the time of the people at Bacho Kiro than previous evidence suggested. A butchered reindeer bone found in the early 20th century has shown that modern humans roamed the wilds of ancient Ireland 33,000 years ago, pushing back the date of the first Irish a whopping 20,000 years! And even more amazingly, this fascinating evidence comes from a place that many of you still live in or near today – North Cork.


Earliest date for the presence of humans in Ireland has been pushed back an astonishing 20,000 years with the identification of butchering marks on a reindeer bone found over 100 years ago
What is this discovery?
This discovery is of a reindeer bone, a femur, which has butchery marks on it, probably from a stone tool.
Where was this discovery made?
This reindeer bone was found in Castlepook Cave, near Doneraile in north Co. Cork over a century ago, in 1905.
When does this reindeer bone date to?
This reindeer bone dates to possibly as early as 33,000 years ago, a time in the Ice Age when the world was slowly slipping towards the coldest episode of the most recent glacial period, the Last Glacial Maximum, which began around 26,000 years ago.
How does this discovery alter the human story of Ireland?
This discovery dramatically alters the story of Ireland's humans, pushing back the earliest date for their presence in Ireland by an incredible 20,000 years, more than doubling the timescale for human habitation in Ireland.

North Cork, 33,000 years ago. At the foot of the Ballyhoura Hills, the still, crystal waters at the edge of a cold pond are disturbed by the repeated sploshing of many rough tongues, a herd of reindeer having paused to quench their thirst. Peacefully, they stand there, unaware that agents of death lurk nearby, inching ever closer. This is a landscape rich in killers, the presence of packs of wolves and spotted hyenas revealed by their haunting howls and sinister laughs drifting from the distance, borne on the frigid breeze. However, it is not these beasts of tooth and claw which stalk these unsuspecting cervids, but a group of entirely different predators – humans.

Downwind of their quarry, these seven human hunters slowly close in, staying low and using the natural undulation of the land and tussocks of grass to conceal their approach until they are finally in position. Each looks at the other, their dark-skinned, weather-beaten faces framed in the halos of fur-trimmed hoods, and in this quick exchange of glances and slight nods they signal it is time to enact their plan.

Two flushers break cover first, roaring as they sprint towards the reindeer from the west side of the pond, shattering their serene slurping and sending them in a bounding panic east of the pond to where the main hunting party lies. Up four of them spring, legs planted far apart and one arm high, unleashing their spears in quick succession, their power boosted by beautifully-carved spear-throwers. Two just barely miss their mark, but the others elicit guttural, anguished cries from the aged male as they bite deeply into flank and torso. As this doomed beast falters, up ahead the fifth, the finisher, earns his name as he looses a lethally accurate missile which powerfully pierces his target's breast. The proud deer does not go down immediately, but after staggering a few more metres it collapses on to its front knees before its body heaves to the ground on its right side and its eyes roll slowly back into its head, its passing accompanied by a convulsive shudder and a final propulsive gasp of breath.

The hunters converge on their downed prey, unlike it still billowing visible breath into the cold air, each gasping from their exertions moments before. As they stand around and appreciate the quality of their kill, they slap each other on the shoulders and backs, their eyes squeezed into thin slits from their grinning cheeks. This much-deserved celebration is cut short, though, as the eerie laughs of a spotted hyena pack once more invade the air, only this time being much closer. The expressions of these human hunters darken and they quickly go about the task at hand, one reaching down with an open palm to touch the neck of this departed bull while intoning a few sacred words, before they dismember it swiftly with their stone daggers for easier transport. Up they hoist their bounty of meat, with some of the spears converted to carrying poles, and off they tramp towards the relative safety of hearth and shelter, warmed by the thought that they and their families will eat well tonight.


It is a truly tantalising thing to picture members of our species living in the Ireland of 33,000 years ago, a wild land they would have shared not only with reindeer, wolves, and spotted hyenas, but woolly mammoths, giant Irish deer, brown bears, arctic foxes, and lemmings, not to mention more familiar forms like red deer, hares, and wild horses. However, up to now that is all we had – pictures born of supposition and speculation, as the earliest evidence for a human presence in Ireland dated to no more than 12,800–12,600 years ago, at the very end of the Ice Age. That has now all changed, the recent discovery of butchery marks on a reindeer bone rewriting the human story of Ireland.

The announcement of this discovery was somewhat unusual, appearing in the second episode of RTE's excellent two-part documentary The Burren: Heart of Stone, appropriately named 'Song of Our Ancestors', the reason for this being that the publication of the paper on this discovery has been delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Nevertheless, its source could not be more credible and trustworthy, Dr Ruth Carden being one of Ireland's leading zooarchaeologists and someone who had already secured her place in the annals of Irish science by proving in 2016, with the aid of her colleague Dr Marion Dowd of Sligo IT, for the first time ever that humans were present in Ice Age Ireland. This was the date of 12,800–12,600 years ago that was the previous record holder for the earliest evidence of a human presence in Ireland.

Dr Carden, then, has truly outdone herself with this recent discovery. While the previous date of 12,800–12,600 years ago pushed back the timescale of human habitation in Ireland by around 2,500 years, this new discovery has blown that out of the water by pushing it back a further 20,000 years. This is an astonishing quantum leap in the human story of Ireland, and though no paper has been published yet on this discovery, Dr Carden did mention some intriguing details in The Burren: Heart of Stone.


For instance, Dr Carden states:
We have butchered reindeer bones which have very deep marks, made by a broad flat tool, a flint or stone tool. It is likely the hunter-gatherers would have followed migrating reindeer herds to Ireland, across wide expanses of lands and water bodies which are now under the sea in the northwest European region.

She also says:

We have two bottom bits of the femur, so the main hind leg bone, which actually have very deep chopping, almost like a chopping mark, made by a broad flat tool, a flint tool or stone tool, and then also we have a fine cutmark on the vertebrae just behind the skull, so almost like it was associated with dismembering the animal in terms of removing its head.

Of course, we cannot know when these butchering marks were made, but the dismembering of the reindeer could have occurred somewhat like it does in the scene I painted earlier, or possibly once the reindeer was brought back to a temporary base camp. What is abundantly clear, though, is that we will have to wait for the paper itself to fully put flesh on the bones of this story.

For now, we might allow ourselves to dream a bit, this discovery freeing our imaginations to conjure up wild images of this ancient time in Ice Age Ireland. And for those of you who live in or near North Cork, perhaps the next time you find yourself at the foot of the Ballyhoura Hills, you might close your eyes and transport yourself to a time when your spine would be set atingle by something far more sinister than a cool breeze, and be glad that you do not need to compete with wolves or hyenas for your supper.


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Click on the image above to read about the epic quest spanning well over a century to find evidence that humans were present in Ireland during the Ice Age, which only came to an end as recently as 2016 when a bear kneecap found in a Clare cave in 1903  was discovered to have knife marks on it.


This MiniMag contains images which require attribution – click here for image credits.
Well, that's it for this month

I hope you all enjoyed reading about the fascinating new discovery of the oldest evidence for a human presence in Ireland, and gained an even greater appreciation for the ever-deepening depths of the story of the Irish through reading the featured blog.

As always, you can discover more about The Evolution of Ireland and the fascinating information it contains on my website and my Instagram and Twitter accounts. See you again next month for the newest edition of The Evolution of Ireland MiniMag!

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