Humans started using cave bear skins 320,000 years ago, and with the appearance of Homo sapiens in Europe 45,000 years ago, hunting pressure on the animal intensified until Ursus spelaeus became extinct 24,000 years ago. Standing 1.70 meters tall at the shoulder and up to 3.5 meters in length, the cave bear was much larger and more robust than its relative, the brown bear, which has survived to this day.

A team of researchers from the University of Tübingen, the University of Göttingen, the Senckenberg Center for Human Evolution and Paleoenvironment, and the State Offices for Monument Conservation of Baden-Württemberg and Lower Saxony has documented for the first time in Germany the conflictive relationship between cave bears and humans during this long period.

The researchers are able to address the long-debated question of whether the cause of the cave bear’s extinction was climate change or humans. Their study provides evidence of increasingly intensive hunting of the cave bear, suggesting that humans were the cause of its extinction. The study was published in the journal Quaternary Science Reviews.

Humans used the cave bear in various ways: they ate its meat, wore its skin, and also established a symbolic relationship with the animal through jewelry made from its teeth or bear figurines made of ivory, explains Dr. Giulia Toniato, coordinator of the research team.

Four examples of cut marks of human origin on bear remains from Schöningen (A), Einhornhöhle (B), Schafstall II (C), Hohle Fels (D).
Four examples of cut marks of human origin on bear remains from Schöningen (A), Einhornhöhle (B), Schafstall II (C), Hohle Fels (D). Credit: Universität Tübingen

The researchers analyzed five sites in Germany (Schöningen, Einhornhöhle, Hohle Fels, Geißenklösterle, and Schafstall) where cave bear bones have been found dating between 300,000 and 28,000 years ago, and compared them with existing studies on cave bear bone findings in France, Belgium, Italy, Bulgaria, and Poland.

In Germany, one of the oldest records of human use of cave bears comes from the Schöningen field station in Lower Saxony: The fine, long cut marks on the leg bones, clearly different from the bite marks of large carnivores, indicate that humans used their hands to skin the bear.

Findings from Einhornhöhle, Geißenklösterle, and Hohle Fels show that bear hunting was also an occasional and established practice among Neanderthals. With the expansion of modern humans in Europe, bears were used more intensively, as evidenced by the higher frequency and variety of modified bear remains from Schafstall II, Geißenklösterle, and Hohle Fels.

Cave bears sought refuge in caves for hibernation, which were also increasingly used by humans. As a result, the two species competed for the same habitat. Encounters became more frequent, as the researchers found by analyzing the sites, and humans hunted the cave bear with increasing intensity, preferably during its hibernation.

A broken flint projectile in the thoracic vertebrae of a bear from Hohle Fels testifies to such an attack. The arrowhead was lodged in one of the first thoracic vertebrae, leading the researchers to conclude that it was a close-range shot. The hunters could only have found the bear in this position while it was sleeping, says Dr. Susanne Münzel from the Institute for Archaeological Sciences at the University of Tübingen.

The genetic diversity of cave bears was already declining 50,000 years ago when Neanderthals still roamed Europe. With the arrival of Homo sapiens, competition for cave habitats and hunting pressure increased. The most recent findings of cave bear bones are 24,000 years old and were discovered in northern Italy. After that, their traces are lost.

Thus, cave bears did not survive the maximum glaciation period 20,000 years ago, while brown bears did. The reason is the different diets of the two bear species, as cave bears followed an exclusively vegetarian diet. They had to survive the winter period, poor in vegetation, by hibernating, during which time the cubs were also born. Brown bears, on the other hand, were carnivorous while contemporaneous with cave bears. After the maximum glaciation and the extinction of cave bears, they expanded their diet to include mainly plant foods. This means that brown bears adapted better to changing environmental conditions, Münzel says.


Sources

Universität Tübingen | Giulia Toniato, Gabriele Russo, et al., A diachronic study of human-bear interactions: An overview of ursid exploitation during the Paleolithic of Germany. Quaternary Science Reviews, vol. 333, 2024. doi.org/10.1016/j.quascirev.2024.108601


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