Analysis of the human remains produced some remarkable insights. Most of those individuals who could be identified from the fragmentary remains were adults, though only one appeared to have lived past the age of 50. Their bones told a story of hard work and toil, with signs of arthritis and wear and tear. There was also signs of violence. A hip bone of a male had the tip of a stone projectile point, possibly an arrowhead, embedded in it. The analysis revealed that this injury had occurred around the time of death, as there were no signs of healing on the bone.
The oldest person to have been interred in the tomb was a woman, and analysis suggests she lived to around 55 years of age. This was a considerable age in a period long before antibiotics, and a time where childbirth was often highly dangerous. It is tempting to wonder if she was an elder, maybe a matriarchal figure? What was her life like in this almost unimaginably different world?
As well as adults, the analysis also revealed that the remains of five children were interred at Poulnabrone. One of these was a newborn, who was laid to rest in the portico of the tomb in the Bronze Age, centuries after the tomb was first constructed.
Dr. Lara Cassidy of Trinity College Dublin carried out genetic analysis on the remains, and evidence from the inner ear bone of one those children revealed that it belonged to a six-month-old boy with Down syndrome. This is the earliest evidence yet found of Down syndrome in Ireland.
You can read a great article on Poulnabrone by Clodagh Finn in the Irish Examiner, that features Dr Lara Cassidy’s work. If you would like to dig deeper into the story I recommend Dr. Ann Lynch’s book Poulnabrone: An Early Neolithic Portal Tomb in Ireland. Published by Wordwell and available here. Finally you can hear more on the Neolithic treatment of the dead in the Carrowkeel episode of Amplify Archaeology Podcast (also including Dr. Lara Cassidy).