Cave Bears: Characteristics, Diet and Cults

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cave bear

The cave bear was a European species that coexisted with early humans for about 20,000 years before dying out about 25,000 years ago. Both the word "cave" and the scientific name spelaeus are used because fossils of this species were mostly found in caves. This reflects the views of experts that cave bears may have spent more time in caves than the brown bear, which uses caves only for hibernation. There were several species of cave bear, including the small cave bear (Ursus rossicus) and large cave bear (Ursus spelaeus). Both could be found across Eurasia during the last ice age. Small cave bears resembled modern-day brown bears in size. [Source: Wikipedia]

According to Live Science Fossils of cave bears show they were closely related to brown bears (Ursus arctos) and polar bears (Ursus maritimus), grew to around 3.5 meters (11.5 feet) tall and weighed a whopping 1,500 kilograms (3,300 pounds). U. spelaeus went extinct around 22,000 years ago, toward the end of the Last Glacial Maximum, the coldest part of the last ice age. [Source: Harry Baker, Live Science, March 3, 2023]

Andrew Curry wrote in Smithsonian Magazine: “People have been excavating cave bear remains for hundreds of years—in the Middle Ages, the massive skulls were attributed to dragons—but the past decade has seen a burst of discoveries about how the bears lived and why they went extinct. An abundance of bear bones has been found from Spain to Romania in caves where the animals once hibernated. “Caves are good places to preserve bones, and cave bears had the good sense to die there,” Hervé Bocherens, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Tübingen, Germany, says. [Source: Andrew Curry, Smithsonian Magazine, December 2010]

“Along with mammoths, lions and woolly rhinos, cave bears were once among Europe’s most impressive creatures. Males weighed 50 percent more than the largest modern grizzlies. Initially they shared the continent with Neanderthals. For a time, archaeologists thought Neanderthals worshiped the bears, or even shared caves with them. The idea was popularized by Jean Auel’s 1980 novel, The Clan of the Cave Bear, but has since been rejected by researchers. Prehistoric humans painted images of the animals on cave walls and carved their likeness in fragments of mammoth tusk

Cave Bear Evolution

Cave bears evolved in Europe more than 100,000 years ago. Both the cave bear and the brown bear are thought to be descended from the Plio-Pleistocene Etruscan bear (Ursus etruscus) that lived about 5.3 million years ago to 100,000 years ago. The last common ancestor of cave bears and brown bears lived between 1.2 million and 1.4 million years ago. The immediate precursor of the cave bear was probably Ursus deningeri (Deninger's bear), a species that lived in Pleistocene Europe about 1.8 million years ago to 100,000 years ago. The transition between Deninger's bear and the cave bear is believed to have occurred during the last interglacial of the present Ice Age when glaciers stretch to their maximum limit southward in Europe and North America. [Source: Wikipedia]

cave bear skull

Because cave bear fossils vary in age and the age of the bears when they died also varies it is hard to get an unequivocally-clear picture of evolutionary trends. The three anterior premolars were gradually reduced, then disappeared, possibly in response to a largely vegetarian diet. The last remaining premolar merged with the true molars. This improved the mastication capacities of the molars, making it easier to consumer tough vegetation, allowing the bear to gain more energy for hibernation, while eating less.

In 2005, scientists sequenced the nuclear DNA of a cave bear that lived between 42,000 and 44,000 years ago using genomic DNA extracted from one of the animal's teeth. This study confirmed and built on data based on mitochondrial DNA extracted from cave bear remains ranging from 20,000 to 130,000 years old. Both the nuclear and mitochondrial DNA show that cave bears were more closely related to brown bears and polar bears than to American black bear, but had split from the brown bear lineage before the distinct eastern and western brown bear lineages diversified, and before the split of brown bears and polar bears. The divergence date estimate of cave bears and brown bears is about 1.2 million to 1.4 million years ago, with some hybridization between them taking place after that.

Cave Bear Characteristics

Cave bears had wider heads than today’s bears, and powerful shoulders and forelimbs.” Their skeletons are similar to those of modern brown bears. They had 1) very broad, domed skulls with a steep forehead; 2) stout bodies with long thighs, massive shins and in-turning feet, similar to the skeletal features of brown bears. [Source: Wikipedia +]

Cave bears were up to 2 meters (6.6 feet) in length. The average weight has been estimated to be 350 to 600 kilograms (770 to 1,320 pounds) for males and 225 to 250 kilograms (495 to 550 pounds) for females. About 90 percent of cave bear skeletons in museums are classified as male because of a misconception that the female skeletons were merely "dwarfs". Cave bears grew larger during glaciations and smaller during interglacials, probably to adjust heat loss rate. +

Judging from their anatomy cave bears ' didn't eat much meat. Their teeth show wear and tear consistent with an animal that consumes mostly tough vegetation. Bears grow new layers of tooth enamel twice a year, in the summer and winter — Ars Technica reported. Researchers determine the age of bears recovered as fossils by looking at the teeth layers. [Source: Aylin Woodward, Business Insider, June 24, 2021]

Cave bears of the last Ice Age interglacial period lacked the usual two or three premolars present in other bears; to compensate, the last molar is very long with supplementary cusps. The humerus of the cave bear was similar in size to that of the polar bear, as were the femora of females. The femora of male cave bears, however, bore more similarities in size to those of Kodiak bears.+

Cave Bear Diet

Cave bear teeth were very large and show greater wear than most modern bear species, suggesting a diet of tough materials. However, tubers and other gritty food, which cause distinctive tooth wear in modern brown bears, do not appear to have constituted a major part of cave bears' diets, judging from dental microwear analysis. Seed fruits are documented to have been consumed by cave bears. [Source: Wikipedia]

There is some evidence that cave bears occasionally consumed animal protein. Toothmarks on cave bear remains in areas where cave bears are the only recorded potential carnivores suggests occasional cannibalistic scavenging, possibly on individuals that died during hibernation. Dental microwear analysis shows the cave bear may have fed on a greater quantity of bone than its contemporary, the smaller Eurasian brown bear. Cave bear remains from Pe tera cu Oase in the southwestern tip of the Romanian part of the Carpathian Mountains had elevated levels of nitrogen-15 in their bones, indicative of omnivorous diets, although the values are within the range of those found for the strictly herbivorous mammoth.

Although the current prevailing opinion concludes that cave bears were largely herbivorous, and more so than modern bear species, increasing evidence points to omnivorous diets, based both on regional variability of isotopic composition of bone remains indicative of dietary plasticity, and on a recent re-evaluation of craniodental morphology that places the cave bear squarely among omnivorous modern bear species with respect to its skull and tooth shapes.

Cave Bear Deaths

Death during hibernation was a common end for cave bears, mainly befalling specimens that failed ecologically during the summer season through inexperience, sickness or old age. Some cave bear bones show signs of numerous ailments, including spinal fusion, bone tumors, cavities, tooth resorption, necrosis (particularly in younger specimens), osteomyelitis, periostitis, rickets and kidney stones. Male cave bear skeletons have been found with broken bacula, probably due to fighting during the breeding season. [Source: Wikipedia]

Paleontologists doubt adult cave bears had any natural predators, save for pack-hunting wolves and cave hyenas, which would probably have attacked sick or infirm specimens. Cave hyenas are thought to be responsible for the disarticulation and destruction of some cave bear skeletons. Such large carcasses were an optimal food resource for the hyenas, especially at the end of the winter, when food was scarce. The presence of fully articulated adult cave lion skeletons, deep in cave bear dens, indicates the lions may have occasionally entered dens to prey on hibernating cave bears, with some dying in the attempt.

Cave Bears and Humans

Andrew Curry wrote in Smithsonian Magazine: “ The relationship between humans and cave bears has been mysterious. Were humans prey for the bears, or predators? Were bears objects of worship or fear? [Source: Andrew Curry, Smithsonian Magazine, December 2010]

“Modern humans arrived in Europe about 40,000 years ago and were soon aware of the bears. The walls of France’s Chauvet cave, occupied 32,000 years ago, are painted with lions, hyenas and bears—perhaps the oldest paintings in the world. The artists weren’t the cave’s only occupants: the floor is covered with 150 cave bear skeletons, and its soft clay still holds paw prints as well as indentations where bears apparently slept. Most dramatically, a cave bear skull was perched on a stone slab in the center of one chamber, placed deliberately by some long-gone cave inhabitant with opposable thumbs. “There’s no way to tell if it was just curiosity that made someone put a skull on the rock or if it had religious significance,” says Bocherens.

“Another discovery, hundreds of miles to the east of Chauvet, would shed light on the relationship between cave bears and humans. The Swabian Jura is a limestone plateau in southwestern Germany that is riddled with caves. A short walk from the village of Schelklingen takes visitors to the foot of a limestone cliff in the Ach Valley.” In 2000 at Hohle Fels cave there “University of Tübingen paleobiologist Susanne Münzel unearthed a bear vertebra with a tiny triangular piece of flint embedded in it. The stone was likely a broken spear point, hard evidence of a successful bear hunt 29,000 years ago. Münzel also found bear bones that had clearly been scratched and scraped by stone tools. Cut marks on skulls and leg bones showed that the bears had been skinned and their flesh cut away. “There must have been cave bear hunting, otherwise you wouldn’t find meat cut off the bone,” she says. Many of the bones were from baby bears, perhaps caught while hibernating.

Cave Bears and Hominins Used in the Same Cave in Germany

bear image in Chauvet Cave

Moira Ritter wrote in the Miami Herald,: While exploring a cave in Germany, archaeologists discovered a rare trove of ancient artifacts and remains left by prehistoric humans — and cave bears. Officials said more than 10,000 animal bones and several stone tools were unearthed from a cave in Endsee, according to a Dec. 11 news release from the Bavarian State Office for Monument Preservation. Archaeologists explored an approximately 13,000-square-foot site to find the remains. [Source: Moira Ritter, Miami Herald, December 12, 2023]

Among the remains, experts discovered seven well-preserved fragments from a cave bear jaw, officials said. In combination with other bones found at the site, the fragments create almost an entire cave bear skeleton. Archaeologists said they used radiocarbon dating to determine the bones likely date to between 45,000 B.C. and 25,000 B.C. The cave bears likely used the area for hibernation and to raise their cubs.

Experts also unearthed bones belonging to other animals — including cave hyenas, wild horses, mammoths, rhinos and wolves — as well as stone tools, indicating the cave was also utilized by early humans or Neanderthals, officials said. Some of the animal bones, which were likely left by hunters, had burn marks and other evidence of processing. The tools in the cave date to between approximately 300,000 B.C. and 45,000 B.C., according to the archaeologists. It’s not yet clear how the bears and humans interacted and the order in which they used the cave. Endsee is about 540 kilometers (330 miles) southwest of Berlin.

Modern Humans Killed a Cave Bear in Russia 35,000 Years Ago

In June 2021, paleontologists announced the discovery of a 35,000-year-old skull of a small cave bear in a Russian cave presumably because it killed by a modern human hunter. That bear appears to have settled into a cave to hibernate and never woke up, The skull had a distinct, oblong hole in it about an inch (2.5 centimeters) long. Although previous research has shown that humans targeted other types of cave bears, this is the first evidence that they hunted small cave bears (Ursus rossicus) during the last ice age. [Source: Aylin Woodward, Business Insider, June 24, 2021]

The researchers found the skull during a three-year excavation of Imanay Cave in a remote part of the southern Ural mountains in Russia. Human hunters most likely found the bear hibernating and stabbed it in the head. “However, it's possible that ice-age humans stabbed the bear after it had already died as part of a ritual. An analysis of the bear's teeth suggested it died in the winter — one reason why paleontologists think it was killed while hibernating. Researchers determined the age of bear when it died to be nine and 10 years old based on teeth layering.

Dmitry Gimranov, a paleontologist from Ural Federal University told Business Insider “The skull hole showed no signs of healing, which suggests the wound happened around the time of the bear's death. The hole's size suggests a strong impact with a hard object. Although it's possible the bear was bludgeoned by a falling rock while it slept, a hunter is a more likely explanation, "Most likely, the animal was killed by ancient people," Gimranov, who co-authored the study,

According to Business Insider: “Gimranov and his colleagues suggest that ancient hunters might have used a spear to pierce the bear's skull. That would be doable if they were standing at close range — a plausible scenario if the animal was deep in slumber. Gimranov's team didn't find an arrowhead or spear lodged in the cave bear's head, but they did find a piece of flint sharpened to a point in the same layer of cave sediment. The sharpened point aligned almost perfectly with the hole in the bear skull, according to the study. Gimranov said the point is about the same size as the hole and may have been mounted onto a spear.

“Previous research has found that ice-age hunters pursued large cave bears, but the new study offers possibly the first direct evidence that humans also hunted small cave bears. Beyond the skull, Gimranov's team found more than 10,000 bones in Imanay Cave — from foxes, mammoths, cave lions, woolly rhinos, and other small cave bears. None of the various cave bear bones the researchers found showed signs of being gnawed. That wasn't unexpected, Gimranov said, because only 20 to 30 cave bear bones in the entire Eurasian fossil record show signs of butchering.

“So if the hunters at Imanay Cave didn't eat their ursine prey, it's possible they stumbled across the bear after it had died, then stabbed it as part of an ancient ritual. In the Paleolithic, ritual, sacred practices were widespread," Gimranov said, adding, "a hole in the skull could have been made after the death of the bear as a ritual practice."

Bear Cults

A number of archeologists propose that Middle Paleolithic societies — including the Neanderthals — may have practiced the earliest form of totemism or animal worship. Based on archeological evidence from Middle Paleolithic caves, Emil Bächler has argued a Neanderthal bear-cult was widespread. Animal cults in the following Upper Paleolithic period — such as the bear cult — may have had their origins in these hypothetical Middle Paleolithic animal cults. [Source: Wikipedia +]

Animal worship during the Upper Paleolithic intertwined with hunting rites. For instance, archeological evidence from art and bear remains reveals that the bear cult apparently had involved a type of sacrificial bear ceremonialism in which a bear was shot with arrows and then was finished off by a shot in the lungs and ritualistically buried near a clay bear statue covered by a bear fur, with the skull and the body of the bear buried separately. +

The Drachenloch cave in Switzerland, excavated by Emil Bächler between 1917 and 1923, uncovered more than 30,000 cave bear skeletons and a stone chest or cist consisting of a low wall built from limestone slabs near a cave wall with a number of bear skulls inside it. Also, a cave bear skull was found with a femur bone from another bear stuck inside it. Some scholars speculated that this was evidence of: 1) prehistoric human religious rites involving the cave bear; 2) a hunting ritual involving cave bears or 3) the skulls were kept as trophies. In Archaeology, Religion, Ritual (2004), archaeologist Timothy Insoll was skeptical about the Drachenloch, writing that the evidence for religious practices involving cave bears in this time period is "far from convincing". +

In Regourdou, southern France, a rectangular pit contained the remains of at least twenty bears, covered by a massive stone slab. The remains of a Neanderthal lay nearby in another stone pit, with various objects, including a bear humerus, a scraper, a core, and some flakes, which were interpreted as grave offerings. A deep chamber of Basura Cave in Savona, Italy, is thought to be related to cave bear worship. There a vaguely bear-shaped stalagmite is surrounded by clay pellets. Bear bones scattered on the floor suggests this was likely to have had some sort of ritual purpose by Neanderthals. +

David Charles Wright-Carr of the Universidad de Guanajuato wrote in a posting on Researchgate: An article by Wunn (2001) argues strongly against cave bear worship in Early and Middle Paleolithic Europe, but it is important to note that these periods predate the presence of anatomically modern Homo sapiens in this region, and Wunn's discussion concerns whether or not Homo sapiens neanderthalensis (or Homo neanderthalensis, if you prefer) worshiped these animals. From the Upper Paleolithic period (ca. 50,000-10,000 years ago), when modern humans (Homo sapiens sapiens) lived in Europe, there is evidence to support the notion of a cave bear cult. The most intriguing data are from Chauvet Cave in France, where in addition to painted depictions of cave bears, there is a chamber where the skull of a cave bear (Ursus spelaeus) was placed prominently on a block of stone in the center of this space, suggesting some sort of ritual activity.

“One of the oldest sculptures from Upper Paleolithic Europe is an ivory figurine from the Hohlenstein-Stadel Cave in Germany, dated at ca. 40,000 years ago. It is usually interpreted as a lion-man (or lion-woman), a hybrid feline-human creature. I think that it could just as well have represented a cave bear (Ursus spelaeus) or some other species of the same genus. Compare the figurine with the standing skeleton of a juvenile cave bear, and the artist's representation of an adult cave bear. These animals inhabited the sacred caves where humans painted the walls and deposited sculptural works. The bears' claw marks sometimes appear under, over, or combined with the marks made by people. It would have been natural for the bears to have acquired a profound symbolic significance in the minds of the humans that shared the landscape with them. One of the oldest musical instruments known is a flute made from the femur of a juvenile cave bear, from around 40,000 years ago, found in a cave in Slovenia. Thus a modified body part of this species may have served as a vehicle for the aesthetic language we call music.”

Cave Bear Extinction

Chauvet cave bear "shrine"

Andrew Curry wrote in Smithsonian Magazine: “Cave bears disappeared not long after humans spread throughout Europe. Could hunting have led to the bears’ extinction? That’s not likely, according to Washington University at St. Louis anthropologist Erik Trinkaus. “People living in the late Pleistocene weren’t stupid,” he says. “They spent an awful lot of time avoiding being eaten, and one of the ways to do that is to stay away from big bears.” If hunting was an isolated event, as he argues, there must be another reason the bears died out. [Source: Andrew Curry, Smithsonian Magazine, December 2010]

“Hervé Bocherens’ test tubes may hold the clues. Running his white powder through a mass spectrometer, he identifies different isotopes, or chemical forms, of elements such as carbon and nitrogen that reflect what the bears were eating and how quickly they grew. After studying hundreds of bones from dozens of sites in Europe, Bocherens has found that cave bears mainly ate plants.

“That would have made the bears particularly vulnerable to the last ice age, which began around 30,000 years ago. The prolonged cold period shortened or eliminated growing seasons and changed the distributions of plant species across Europe. Cave bears began to move from their old territories, according to a DNA analysis led by researchers at the Max Planck Institute in Leipzig of teeth found near the Danube River. The cave bear population there was relatively stable for perhaps 100,000 years, with the same genetic patterns showing up generation after generation. But about 28,000 years ago, newcomers with different DNA patterns arrived—a possible sign of hungry bears suddenly on the move.

“But climate change can’t be solely to blame for the bears’ extinction. According to the latest DNA study, a Max Planck Institute collaboration including Bocherens, Münzel and Trinkaus, cave bear populations began a long, slow decline 50,000 years ago—well before the last ice age began. The study does support a different explanation for the cave bear’s demise. As cavemen—Neanderthals and then a growing population of modern humans—moved into the caves of Europe, cave bears had fewer safe places to hibernate. An acute housing shortage may have been the final blow for these magnificent beasts”.

“Perfectly Preserved” "Cave Bear" Found in Arctic Russia

In 2020, Russian scientists said that reindeer herders in a Russian Arctic archipelago found an immaculately preserved” carcass of an Ice Age cave bear. The remains, which included the bear's intact skin, fur, teeth, nose, claws, body fat and internal organs, was found on Bolshoy Lyakhovsky Island, a remote Russian island located in the East Siberian Sea. Researchers named it the Etherican bear, after the nearby Bolshoy Etherican River.

Associated Press reported: “The find, revealed by the melting permafrost, was discovered on the Lyakhovsky Islands with its teeth and even its nose intact. Previously scientists only had been able to discover the bones of cave bears that became extinct 15,000 years ago. Scientists of the North-Eastern Federal University in Yakutsk, the premier center for research into woolly mammoths and other prehistoric species, hailed the find as groundbreaking.[Source: Associated Press, September 15, 2020]

“In a statement issued by the university, researcher Lena Grigorieva emphasized that “this is the first and only find of its kind — a whole bear carcass with soft tissues.” “It is completely preserved, with all internal organs in place, including even its nose,” Grigorieva said. “This find is of great importance for the whole world.” “A preliminary analysis indicated that the adult bear lived 22,000 to 39,500 years ago. “It is necessary to carry out radiocarbon analysis to determine the precise age of the bear,” the university quoted researcher Maxim Cheprasov as saying.

“The bear carcass was found by reindeer herders on Bolshoy Lyakhovsky Island. It is the largest of the Lyakhovsky Islands, which are part of the New Siberian Islands archipelago that lies between the Laptev Sea and the East Siberian Sea. Separately, at least one preserved carcass of a cave bear cub has been found on the Russian mainland in Yakutia. Scientists are hopeful of obtaining its DNA.

“Perfectly Preserved” Arctic Bear — Not A Cave Bear But a Different, Younger Species

cave bear bones

The perfectly preserved, mummified bear found in the Siberian permafrost in 2020, it turns out, isn't what scientists thought it was. It is much younger than initially assumed and belongs to an entirely different species. Live Science reported: When the Etherican bear was first uncovered, researchers at the Lazarev Mammoth Museum Laboratory at North-Eastern Federal University (NEFU) in Yakutsk, who have led the analysis of the remains, thought that the mummy was an extinct cave bear (Ursus spelaeus). However, subsequent analysis revealed that their assumptions about the Etherican bear were way off: In reality, the beast was a brown bear that dated to around 3,460 years ago, the NEFU team said in a statement in December 2022. [Source: Harry Baker, Live Science, March 3, 2023]

“The NEFU team recently conducted a full necropsy, or animal autopsy, on the Etherican bear, which has revealed even more about the mysterious mummy, Reuters reported. The bear was a female that was 5.2 feet (1.6 m) tall and weighed around 172 pounds (78 kg), suggesting it was likely around 2 to 3 years old when it died. It is unclear how the bear perished, but its mummy showed signs of significant spinal injuries that likely contributed to its demise.

The Etherican bear was so well preserved that its stomach contents were still partly intact, which revealed that the bear had been dining on a mix of unidentified plants and birds, some of whose feathers were still inside the bear's belly. This fits with what we know about living brown bears that are omnivores, meaning they have a mixed diet of plants and animals.

The researchers also removed the bear's brain after cutting through its skull, which they hope to study in the future. One of the biggest remaining mysteries about the Etherican bear is how it ended up on Bolshoy Lyakhovsky Island. The island is currently separated from the mainland by around 31 miles (50 kilometers) of water, so the most likely explanation is that brown bears moved to the island when it was still connected by sea ice during the Last Glacial Maximum, according to Reuters. But if this was the case, then researchers would have expected to find many more brown bear remains on the island, which is a hotspot for paleontological treasures, including mammoth remains.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: National Geographic, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, Nature, Scientific American. Live Science, Discover magazine, Discovery News, Natural History magazine, Archaeology magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, BBC, The Guardian, Reuters, AP, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, , Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated May 2024

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