A recent study has revealed fascinating insights into the hunting habits of Neanderthals, particularly their interactions with cave lions. In 2019, excavations at Unicorn Cave in the Harz Mountains, Germany, unearthed a treasure trove of Ice Age animal remains, including a few bones from the extinct cave lion, dating back over 200,000 years.
The study, which was published in Scientific Reports, shed light on how Neanderthals made use of the formidable cave lion. Researchers discovered a toe bone with a distinctive cut mark, indicating that Neanderthals had meticulously removed the lion’s pelt, even leaving the claws intact, suggesting they repurposed the skin for various purposes.
However, the Einhornhöhle findings did not directly confirm hunting activities. To contextualize this discovery, the lead author, Gabriele Russo of Universität Tübingen in Germany, turned to a different cave lion specimen found by a teenager in Bavaria. Russo’s closer examination of this lion’s skeleton unveiled peculiar damage on one of its ribs, identified as the result of a weapon impact, distinct from carnivore bite marks. Dr. Annemieke Milks, an archaeologist at the University of Reading, noted, “The rib lesion clearly differs from bite marks of carnivores and shows the typical breakage pattern of a lesion caused by a hunting weapon.”
This 50,000-year-old skeleton provided a groundbreaking revelation: Neanderthals not only hunted cave lions, but they also consumed their meat. The cut marks on the bones offer compelling evidence that these early humans successfully tackled this apex predator.
The cave lion, with a shoulder height of approximately 1.3 meters, reigned as the most formidable predator across Eurasia for around 200,000 years, until its extinction at the close of the Ice Age. These majestic creatures thrived in a variety of environments, from open steppes to rugged mountains, and as apex predators, they hunted large herbivores like mammoths, bison, horses, and even cave bears. It’s their frequent presence in Ice Age caves that gave them their name.
Until recently, it was believed that cultural engagement with this apex predator was absent prior to the emergence of Homo sapiens. Among the earliest artistic expressions created by Homo sapiens, we find striking examples in the caves of the Swabian Jura in Southwest-Germany, where the cave lion features prominently. Notably, the famous ivory “lion man” sculpture, dating back approximately 40,000 years, is a testament to this relationship.
Cave lions also made their mark in ancient rock art, as seen in the 34,000-year-old panels in Grotte Chauvet, located in southeastern France. These findings indicate that the cave lion held special significance for Neanderthals as well. Thomas Terberger, the project’s spokesperson, observes, “The human desire to attain respect and power through a lion trophy has its roots in Neanderthal behavior, and throughout history, the lion has remained a potent symbol of rulers.”
This new study contributes to the ever-growing understanding of behavioral similarities between Neanderthals and early Homo sapiens. Recent discoveries, such as an engraved giant deer bone from Einhornhöhle, underscore the Neanderthals’ ability to create and communicate through symbols. The role of cave lions hints at the complexity of Neanderthal behaviors and may have laid the foundation for subsequent cultural developments among Homo sapiens.
Source: University of Reading