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Skull analysed at Aillwee Caves dates back to the Stone Age

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New research on the skull of a brown bear found at Aillwee Caves is 10,400 years old and dates back to the Stone Age it has been confirmed.

First discovered when the Caves were opened to the public in 1976, the 453 bones were re-analysed over the past eight months by Dr Marion Dowd, Lecturer in Prehistoric Archaeology at the Centre of Environmental Research Innovation and Sustainability (CERIS), at IT Sligo, Dr Ruth Carden, Research Fellow at UCD, and Sheila Hamilton-Dyer of Bournemouth University.

For years it was believed that only one bear was represented in the remains from Aillwee Cave but radiocarbon dating has uncovered the presence of two different bears which is “an unexpected bonus” according to Dr Dowd who led the research. The remains of the second bear showed signs of a chop-mark, leading researchers to surmise that the bear carcass was butchered by humans after being hunted or dying of natural causes. Brown bears became extinct in Ireland around 1,000BC.

Since their discovery in 1976, the bear remains at Aillwee Cave have been viewed by approximately five million visitors. Nuala Mulqueeney is a Director at the Caves which are one of the country’s oldest and is among the premier tourism attractions in the west of Ireland, she highlighted the importance of the discovery for them. “It’s so vital that when people are with us that we can interpret what was going on in the cave if anything so to be able to show people from the Brown Bear dating to the Stone Age as it turns out 10,400 years ago it’s just wonderful and the fact that there were two remains bears found, the skulls of the older one and a leg bone of the more recent one dating to 4,600 years ago so it just shows that there was activity spanning nearly 6000 years there. To be able to interpret that for our visitors is brilliant”.

Aillwee Cave Directors Nicky Johnson & Nuala Mulqueeney. Photo: Ken Williams

Nuala confirmed to The Clare Echo that the remains of the bears are the oldest in the Aillwee Caves. “The oldest one is the skull and that’s from the early Mesolithic. Also what was found in the cave were horse teeth and they date from the Iron Age and they are 2100 years old, there were seven horse teeth and nothing else belonging to the horses were found so that is a bit of an anomaly they don’t know how they got into the cave but they were found there and dated for that. Horses at that time would be much smaller than what we know horses to be, they were used for farming, transport and warfare”.

At present there are no plans to dig into further research on remains at the Aillwee Caves according to Nuala. “This is the first revelation in forty years, things move slowly here at Aillwee”, she joked. “The terms of research on the bones and stuff is just great now to have actual good perfect well researched dates. We have no plans for further research at the moment but you never know”.

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