The Cave Bear vs our Forebears

The cave bear went extinct some 24,000 years ago. It was a largely vegetarian species, whose remains were mostly found in caves, hence the name. There is some contested evidence that ancient humans venerated the cave bear. They may also have contributed to its demise…

Big bears

The cave bear is one of the largest known species of bear, whose size and weight may have been comparable to the largest and heaviest bears that occur today – namely the polar bear and the kodiak bear. Male cave bears had estimated average weights between 400 and 500 kg (880 to 1100 lb), and female cave bears ranged from 225 to 250 kg (500 to 550 lb). Cave bears had wider heads than today’s bears, but they had unusually small brains relative to their body size. They were also mostly vegetarian, with a largely plant-based diet.

Above: Polar bear and kodiak bear on left | Cave bear mock-up on right (by Sergiodlarosa)

The cave bear, or Ursus spelaeus to use its Latin name, lived in Europe and Asia from around 100,000 years ago. The greatest abundance of cave bear remains have been found in caves from Spain to Romania, often in the lower slopes of mountainous regions such as the Pyrenees, Alps, and Carpathians. None have been found in northern locations such as Scotland, Scandinavia and the Baltic countries, which would have been glaciated during the Pleistocene epoch (up until around 11,700 year ago).

Cave bear cult?

There is clear evidence of bear worship by indigenous cultures around the world, and this may also extend to cave bears. There have been suggestions that cave bears were venerated by the Neanderthals (extinct archaic humans) that were living in Europe at the time. This idea of a Paleolithic cave bear cult first came about when paleontologist Emil Bächler excavated a cave in Switzerland after the first World War. As told at polarcosmology.com:

“…Bächler excavated the Drachenloch cave in eastern Switzerland, and found some intriguing skeletal remains of this creature [cave bear]. Skull and leg bones seem to have been arranged in ‘stone boxes’. One skull had a femur penetrating its cheek, an arrangement that Bächler thought only possible if the femur is turned as it is pushed in. Believing there to be no way for these arrangements to be naturally occurring, his conclusion was that he had discovered a very early ‘shrine’ dedicated to this fearsome denizen of Palaeolithic Europe’s caves”

In addition to Bächler’s discovery, bear skulls were found by André Leroi-Gourhan arranged in a perfect circle at in Saône-et-Loire in France – perhaps as part of some kind of ceremony? However, not everyone agree with this ancient bear cult – for example, Ina Wunn, an expert on the history of religions, has cited the lack of evidence of cave bear worship in Neanderthal settlements and camps, and has suggested that the placement of their remains may have been due to natural processes. As yet it does not appear that a consensus has emerged.

Extinction

Whether or not the Neanderthals venerated the cave bear, we know that Neanderthals disappeared in Eurasia around 40,000 years ago, and the cave bear went extinct around 24,000 years ago

Above: Cave bear skeleton from Romania (by Zátonyi Sándor) and skull (by Didier Descouens)

In addition to the cave bear, several – predominately megafaunal – species did not survive the Quaternary extinction event. In the Late Pleistocene, this saw two phases of extinction. The caves bears went out in the first phase (pre-13,000 BCE), along with the straight-tusked elephant, the European water buffalo and the scimitar-toothed cat. The majority of species succumbed between 13,000 BCE and 9,000 BCE, which ended with the Younger Dryas (a brief return to glacial conditions).

So why did the cave bear go extinct? One theory is that modern humans arrived in Europe around 45,000 years ago and they competed with the cave bears for cave-space. Unlike the more versatile brown caves, which could hibernate in thickets, cave bears appeared to only hibernate in caves.

There is also the possibility that over-hunting contributed to the demise of the cave bear. Refuse middens do show some limited evidence of butchered bear bones, but these are usually brown bears rather than cave bears. In addition, human populations were low at the time, and they may have avoided rather than sought out large bear species. Cave bears are also seldom depicted in cave paintings (one exception to this is seen below).

Above: Wall drawing from cave in Dordogne, France (wild horse, cave bear, mammoth, cave lion)

Climate change may have played a major role in the demise of the cave bears. Although cave bears had survived previous changes in climate, it is notable that their extinction came around the start of the last glacial maximum of 24,000 to 19,000 years ago. Prior to that, around 30,000 years ago, there is evidence in the Danube River region of newcomer cave bears with different DNA patterns. As the climate cooled, it appears that there were hungry bears on the move.

Lastly, there is evidence that the genetic decline of the cave bear began long before the species went extinct. This suggests a species under stress, that was more vulnerable to changes in its environment, whether that be climate change or the arrival and expansion of modern humans.

The cave bear lives on (sort of)

A recent study has found that around 0.9 to 2.4 percent of living brown bears’ DNA can be traced back to cave bears. This indicates that ancient interbreeding took place between cave bears and brown bears, and indeed there is some evidence of interbreeding between today’s brown bears and polar bears.

So, the cave bear is no more, but its genetic footprint lives on.

References

Article: Extinct cave bear DNA found in living bears (27 August 2018), National Geographic

Article: Extinct vegetarian cave bear diet mystery unravelled (28 July 2018)

Article: The ban of the cave bear (5 April 2018)

Article: Elucidating the biology of huge extinct cave bears (24 August 2017)

Article: The cave bear – a vegan gone extinct (23 August 2016)

Article: The cult of the cave bear (13 October 2014)

Paper: Cave bear ecology and interactions with Pleistocene humans (M.C. Stiner, 1999)

And finally

A recommended work of fiction featuring the cave bear…

The Clan of the Cave Bear by Jean M. Auel

 

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