Messing with a cave lion could well have been a Stone Age hunter’s last act. At up to 880 pounds, these Pleistocene predators were some of the biggest cats that ever lived. But now scientists say humans did indeed pursue these massive beasts — and may have contributed to their extinction.
Deep inside a pitch-black cave, researchers have found the remains of a cave-lion pelt used to cover a ritual hut built some 16,000 years ago. The discovery astonished the scientists. Until now, there’s been almost no evidence prehistoric humans dared kill and make use of the imposing carnivores.
“Hunting a lion was very dangerous,” says study author Marián Cueto of Spain’s University of Cantabria. “It probably had an important role as a trophy and significant use in a ritual place.”
That ritual place, a chamber in Spain’s La Garma cave, is challenging to reach even today. Archaeologists squeeze through a narrow passageway and descend long ladders to access the space, their way lighted only by headlamps — and they have it easy. The people of the Upper Paleolithic would’ve relied on wooden torches or grease-burning lamps to navigate the dark corridors, says Eugéne Morin of Canada’s Trent University, who was not involved with the study.
The chamber’s original entrance was blocked thousands of years ago, turning it into a time capsule of Paleolithic ritual. Thousands of animal bones litter the floor, horse skulls stare out from the huts in the chamber and paintings of animals adorn the walls, suggesting the site “was probably a significant part of the landscape (and) was visited for millennia to do rock art and other weird stuff,” says Gerrit Dusseldorp of the Netherlands’ Leiden University, who also was not involved with the study.
Scouring the floor inside and outside one of the huts, Cueto and her colleagues encountered some startling fossils. They were nine toe bones, of similar enough size that the researchers think they came from a single cave lion. The pelt itself likely decomposed long ago. The markings on the bones imply a skilled craftsperson skinned the lion’s carcass, leaving the toes on the pelt, the scientists report in the journal PLOS ONE.
The position of the bones suggests the skin covered one of the huts, Cueto says, and the expertise that went into skinning the carcass “could mean that (lion hunting) was much more common than previously thought.” In that case, human hunting could’ve helped the lion toward its extinction some 14,000 years ago.
Other researchers are divided about humans’ role in the disappearance of the cave lion. It’s plausible modern humans helped wipe out the beasts, says Susanne Münzel of Germany’s University of Tübingen, because human populations grew during this period, and lion hunting would have carried prestige.
But Dusseldorp and University of New Mexico emeritus professor Lawrence Straus are less certain. People of the day “undoubtedly respected lions a great deal. Whether they hunted them, that’s a whole other thing,” Straus says. “Would you want to go up against a modern-day lion with a rifle?” Perhaps, he says, the pelt came from a lion that died of other causes.
Cueto responds that to procure a high-quality skin, people probably would’ve needed to kill the animal themselves rather than scavenging one from an animal that was already dead.
But there’s still widespread agreement the lion was a figure of awe, respect and perhaps even fear for the hunters of the day, its presence in the cave a sign of “something symbolic,” Morin says.
“It was an important and powerful animal,” Cueto says. “Why not think that sleeping under its skin during a ritual could give you its strength?”