Cave lion: prey and fur supplier to the Neanderthals

Cave lion: prey and fur supplier to the Neanderthals

Artist’s impression of Neanderthals dismantling a captured cave lion. © Graphics by Julio Lacerda, NLD

What role did the mighty cave lion of the Ice Age play for the Neanderthals? A study shows that the big cat was also apparently one of their prey animals. This is evidenced by the trace of a spearhead on a fossil rib bone. The scientists also report forensic evidence that Neanderthals adorned themselves with cave lion skins, including impressive paws.

Large, powerful and dangerous: The lion is considered the king of animals and has been a symbol for humans since time immemorial. It was previously known that this apparently also applied to the first representatives of our species in Ice Age Europe: Not only did they hunt the cave lion, which was widespread there until around 12,000 years ago, it also apparently had symbolic meaning: modern humans placed the large cat of prey on rock faces and in the form of ivory carvings. So far, however, it has remained unclear what relationship the Neanderthals had to the cave lion. The study by a research team led by Gabriele Russo from the Lower Saxony State Office for Monument Preservation (NLD) in Hanover now provides new insights into this question.

On the trail of lion hunters

The first part of the study is based on the examination of the skeleton of a cave lion that was discovered near Siegsdorf in Bavaria in 1975. According to the dating, it dates back to around 50,000 years ago and therefore from the late Neanderthal era. When examining the bones, cut marks were discovered that documented that the animal had been dismembered with stone tools. Until now, it remained unclear whether the Neanderthals had already found the cave lion dead or whether they had killed it themselves.

As the researchers report, when they examined the bones again, they discovered a striking trace: a lesion on the inside of the lion’s third rib, which corresponds to the impact of a spear with a wooden tip. The features are similar to those of traces on deer vertebrae that are known to have been caused by Neanderthal spears. “The rib injury is clearly different from bite marks from large carnivores and shows the typical fracture patterns of a weapon injury,” says Russo.

The cave lion skeleton from Siegsdorf in conjunction with a Neanderthal spear. © Volker Minkus, NLD

The forensic findings also show that the spear entered the animal at an angle and pierced vital organs. The scientists conclude that the finding is now the first tangible evidence of lion hunting among the Neanderthals. The cut marks also show that they not only wanted to eliminate an enemy or competitor for food, but also consumed the meat.

Prestigious trophies?

In the second part of the study, the team looked at finds of cave lion bones from the Unicorn Cave in the Harz Mountains, which were discovered in a layer that is around 190,000 years old. These are not different skeletal parts, but just bones that once formed the animals’ paws. When examining these remains, the researchers discovered characteristic cut marks on a toe bone. As they explain, these are in a place that only makes sense if the animal was skinned to obtain fur, which also included the paws and claws.

This means: The toe bones apparently come from a lion skin that Neanderthals took from a dead animal and then put in the cave

Artist’s impression of a Neanderthal wearing a lion’s skin. © Mauro Cutrona, NLD

brought. The scientists see the apparently deliberate preservation of the paws as a clear indication of the special significance of the cave lions for the Neanderthals: the furs could have been prestige objects or perhaps they even served ritual purposes for our archaic cousins.

“The desire to gain respect and personal power with the fur of a dangerous animal appears to have its roots in the time of the Neanderthals and the lion is still considered a symbol of power to this day,” says senior author Thomas Terberger from the NLD, commenting on the evidence from the study. It is now also contributing to the change in the primitive image of Neanderthals: numerous studies in recent years have shown that they were more similar to us than long thought.

Source: Lower Saxony State Office for Monument Preservation, specialist article: Scientific Reports, doi: 10.1038/s41598-023-42764-0

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