Cave Hyenas: Characteristics, Diet and Humans

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The cave hyena (Crocuta crocuta spelaea) is an an extinct hyena also known as the Ice Age spotted hyena that is regarded as a paleosubspecies of the spotted hyena, which still live in Africa and parts of Asia today. Cave hyenas ranged from Britain and the Iberian Peninsula to eastern Siberia and China and are one of the best known mammals of the Ice Age, with their bones found in many European caves. They preyed on large mammals such as wild horses, steppe bison and woolly rhinoceros, whose bones accumulated by the hundreds in caves, sinkholes, mud pits, and muddy areas along rivers. [Source: Wikipedia]

According to Prehistoric Fauna: “ It is known from a range of fossils and prehistoric cave art. With the decline of grasslands 12,500 years ago, Europe experienced a massive loss of lowland habitats favoured by cave hyenas, and a corresponding increase in mixed woodlands. Little is known of their social habits. Their use of caves as dens is widely accepted, although sites in the open-air are also known. Indications of whether cave hyenas lived in large clans or on a more solitary basis is lacking, though large clans are not considered likely in their Pleistocene habitat. [Source: Roman Uchytel’s Prehistoric Fauna]

Though originally described as a separate species from the spotted hyena due to large differences in fore and hind extremities, genetic analysis indicates no sizeable differences in DNA between Pleistocene cave hyena and modern day spotted hyena populations. Genetic evidence from the nuclear genome suggests that Eurasian Crocuta populations (including the Asian Crocuta crocuta ultima) were highly genetically divergent from African populations, though the lack of clear separation between mitochondrial genome lineages suggests that the two populations interbred for some time after the initial split.

The latest known specimens of cave hyenas in Europe date to around 31,000 years ago. The youngest specimens in East Asia date to around 20,000 years ago. The cause of the cave hyena's extinction is not fully understood, though it could have been due to a combination of factors, including decreasing temperatures, competition with other carnivores, including humans for food and living spaces, and decreases in prey. Evidence suggests that climate change alone cannot account for the cave hyena's extinction in Europe and that other factors, such as human activity and less prey also played roles.

Cave Hyena Characteristics

Cave hyenas were heavier and more robust than spotted hyenas. The main difference between the two was the different lengths of the bones of the hind and front limbs. Cave hyenas had longer humeruses and femurs indicating an adaptation to environments different than those of the spotted hyenas. Bases on an almost complete specimen, found from the Los Aprendices cave in northern Spain, cave hyenas had an estimated weight of 103 kilograms. [Source: Wikipedia]

As is the case with the spotted hyenas, females cave hyenas were larger than males. A study of 16 fossil specimens of Pleistocene Crocuta indicated that the cave hyena became larger during glacial periods and smaller during interglacial periods. Rock paintings in the Lascaux and Chauvet Caves indicate that the cave hyena had the characteristic patches and mane of the spotted hyena. It has been proposed that it possessed thicker fur than the spotted hyena as an environmental adaptation.

Intracranial digital casts taken from spotted hyenas and two cave hyena skulls showed that the latter had a brain volume of 174–218 cubic centimeters, more than today's spotted hyena which has an average volume of 160 cubic centimeters. In cave hyenas, however, the front part of the brain occupies only 15.9-16.6 percent of the total brain volume, in contrast to the spotted hyena, whose anterior telencephalon occupied 24.5 percent.

Well-Preserved Cave Hyena Discovered in Spain

In the mid 2010s a well-preserved partial skeleton of a cave hyena was found at Los Aprendices Cave, a 143,000-38,000 year old site in northern Spain, along the remains of several other mammals including ibex, rabbit, rodent, and desman, [Source: Brian Switek, Scientific American, April 20, 2017 ||=||]

Brian Switek wrote in Scientific American: “Despite the fact that cave hyenas were relatively common in Ice Age Europe, their skeletons are considered rare. Their bones were often broken and scattered, sometimes because the living hyenas scavenged the dead. So even though previous research has revealed that the form of this ancient mammal was similar to that of today’s spotted hyena, any new cave hyena skeleton offers a new point of comparison between the present and not-too-distant past.” ||=||

This particular hyena, Victor Sauqué and colleagues write, “is represented by 194 bones. That’s not bad at all, with the skull and limbs almost completely represented. And from those bones, the researchers estimated that this individual weighed about 227 pounds – quite a bit heftier than most spotted hyenas alive today. In fact, Sauqué and colleagues write, the cave hyena was “a heavier and more powerful animal” than its living relatives. A stockier build would have made it less skilled as a runner, but better able to drag large portions of carcasses back to dens to consume in relative peace. ||=||

“So was the Los Aprendices hyena just like a bulkier spotted hyena? That’s difficult to say. Ice Age cave hyenas and today’s spotted hyenas were close relatives, with some experts allocating the cave hyenas to a subspecies of spotted hyena. Yet Sauqué and colleagues point out differences in size, jaw anatomy, and possibly behavior that might separate the two forms. ||=||

Cave Hyena Diet, Food and Prey

Cave hyena

The cave hyena's diet was meat-based as is the case with modern African spotted hyenas. Studies have revealed a progressive increase in carnivorous tooth adaptations during glacial periods, indicating that it was an even more active hunter than today's spotted hyena, a behaviour necessitated by the need to feed on calorie rich fresh meat in a freezing environment. [Source: Wikipedia]

The most common prey of cave hyenas found in Europe is horses. In the Srbsko Chlum-Komin Cave in the Czech Republic, for example, horse remains make up 51 percent of the species present. This contrasts with spotted hyenas, which tend to go after small antelope, impala, gazelle and wildebeest and are opportunistic scavengers of carrion.

Steppe bison remains are generally rare in hyena burrows, and it has been proposed that, except during glacial periods, these were avoided to lessen competition with cave lions and wolves. However, certain sites, such as the cave of San Teodoro, where bison make up 50 percent of the remains, indicate that certain populations of hyenas specialized their hunting where mammoths and bears were scarce, whose carcasses were a main source of food in much of Europe. Deer are rare or absent in the burrows, probably because they were too fast for hyenas. However, exceptions do exist. The Fouvent-Saint-Andoche hyena den contains remains of red deer, Irish elk, and reindeer.

Studies have shown there is a correlation between forebrain development and feeding sociability and flexibility in hyenas, Bases on this because cave hyenas have a smaller forebrain it has been theorized that cave hyena did not have complex social behaviors or adaptability like the spotted hyena, Instead they were more similar to modern brown and striped hyenas, both considered solitary scavengers.

Brian Switek wrote in Scientific American: “Cave hyenas are thought to have been major bone accumulators during the Ice Age whereas today’s spotted hyenas don’t engage in the behavior nearly as often. A recent study on fossil hyena brains, likewise, suggest that the smarts of today’s spotted hyenas was a relatively recent evolutionary event and may have further distinguished today’s populations from the cave hyenas. Regardless of how the systematics shake out, however, Europe’s Ice Age hyenas were undoubtedly impressive beasts, and we can thank them for helping to create a record of Pleistocene life through their leftovers.” [Source: Brian Switek, Scientific American, April 20, 2017 ||=||]

Siberian Hyena Cave Filled with Mammoth, Rhino and Bear Bones

In 2023, paleontologist announced they had discovered the largest ancient hyena lair ever found in Asia — in Khakassia, a republic in southern Siberia,. Undisturbed for about 42,000 years, the cave contained a wide range animal bones, including those form brown bears, foxes, wolves, mammoths, rhinos, yaks, deer, gazelles, bison, horses, rodents, birds, fish and frogs. Residents of Khakassia discovered the cave in 2018 according to the V. S. Sobolev Institute of Geology and Mineralogy but to the remoteness of the area, paleontologists weren’t able to fully explore and examine the remains until June 2022. They collected around 400 kilograms (880 pounds) of bones, including two complete cave hyena skulls, and deduced that hyenas occupied the cave as the bones contained gnaw marks consistent with hyena teeth. [Source: Kristin Hugo, Live Science, June 30, 2023]

“In addition, we came across a series of bones in anatomical order. For example, in rhinos, the ulna and radius bones are together," Dmitry Gimranov, senior researcher at the Ural Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences, said. "This suggests that the hyenas dragged parts of the carcasses into the lair." The researchers also found the bones of hyena pups — which tend not to be preserved as they are so fragile — indicating they were raised in the cave. "We even found a whole skull of a young [hyena], many lower jaws and milk teeth," Gimranov said.

Live Science reported: Siberia is rich with the remains of Pleistocene animals. Their remains are not old enough to be fossilized, or replaced with rock through a mineralization process. The bones, and sometimes skin, flesh and even blood of these animals are often not much different than they were the year they died. This is thanks — in large part — to the cold weather preserving the remains. The bones were sent to Yekaterinburg for further analysis.“[T]he finds will also tell us about the flora and fauna of that time, what animals ate, what the climate was like in this area,” Dmitry Malikov, senior researcher at the Institute of Geology and Mineralogy of the Siberian Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences, said in the statement. “We will also get important information from the coprolites,” the fossilized feces of the animals, he added.

Woolly Rhino DNA Extracted From Hyena Feces

In January 2024, scientists announced they had reconstructed the mitochondrial genome of a European Woolly Rhinoceros for the first time — using DNA extracted from fossilized hyena feces. Tim Newcomb wrote in Popular Mechanics: The research team behind this project—the results of which were published in the journal Biology Letters—says that the demise of the Coelodonta antiquitatis, an “iconic species of the Eurasian Pleistocene megafauna,” started around 10,000 years ago. Despite early recovery of several specimens from archaeological sites, no genomes of the population have been available. All genomic data originated exclusively from Siberian populations. [Source: Tim Newcomb, Popular Mechanics, January 31, 2024]

So, the research team turned to two caves in Germany, where they located fossilized feces of hyenas—a leading predator of the rhino. “Using coprolites [fossilized feces] of cave hyenas recovered from Middle Paleolithic layers of two caves in Germany,” the authors wrote, “we isolated and enriched predator and prey DNA to assemble the first European woolly rhinoceros mitogenomes in addition to cave hyena mitogenomes.”

Extracting information on the woolly rhino from ancient poop may not be over. “There are several mitogenomes of European (and Asian) cave hyenas available, so our results are an addition to these that might help elucidate population dynamics,” Peter Seeber, a study author from the University of Konstanz in Germany, told IFL Science.

Cave Hyenas, Hominins and Art

the mammoth ivory atlatl "creeping hyena", from La Madeleine rock shelter dated to 12,000 to 17,000 years ago

Kills partially processed by Neanderthals and then by cave hyenas indicate that hyenas occasionally stole Neanderthal kills; and cave hyenas and Neanderthals competed for cave sites. Many caves show alternating occupations by hyenas and Neanderthals. The presence of large hyena populations in the Russian Far East may have delayed the human colonisation of North America. There is fossil evidence of humans in Middle Pleistocene Europe butchering and presumably consuming hyenas. [Source: Wikipedia]

The cave hyena is depicted in a few examples of Upper Palaeolithic rock art in France. A painting from the Chauvet Cave depicts a hyena outlined and represented in profile, with two legs, with its head and front part. It is distinguishable by spotted coloration pattern on the front part of its body. Because of the specimen's steeped profile, it is thought that the painting was originally meant to represent a cave bear, but was modified to be hyena. In Lascaux, a red and black rock painting of a hyena is located in the cave known as the Diverticule axial. It is profile, with four limbs, and a steep back. The body and the long neck have spots, including the flanks. An image on a cave in Ariège shows an incompletely outlined and deeply engraved figure, representing a part of an elongated neck. The ear is rounded, typical of spotted hyenas.

A mammoth ivory atlatl "creeping hyena", found in La Madeleine rock shelter has been dated to 12,000 to 17,000 years ago, which s long after cave hyenas became extinct. An image in the Le Gabillou Cave in Dordogne shows a deeply engraved zoomorphic figure with a head in frontal view and an elongated neck with part of the forelimb in profile. It has large round eyes and short, rounded ears which are set far from each other. It is probably a spotted hyena based on its broad muzzle and long neck.

The relative scarcity of hyena depictions in Paleolithic rock art has been theorised to be due to the animal's lower rank in the animal worship hierarchy; the cave hyena's appearance was likely unappealing to Ice Age hunters, and it was not sought after as prey. Also, it was not a serious rival like the cave lion or bear, and it lacked the impressiveness of the mammoth or woolly rhino.

Cave Hyenas Hunted Neanderthals and Devoured Them in an Italian Cave

Fossilized remains of nine Neanderthals in the Guattari Cave in San Felice Circeo in Rome indicate they were devoured there by hyenas, presumably after being hunted by the animals, the Italian Culture Ministry announced in May 2021.. Some of the bones, which included skullcaps and broken jawbones, could be over 90,000 years old. They are believed to have belonged to seven adult males, one female, and one young boy. [Source: Sophia Ankel, Business Insider, May 9, 2021]

cave hyena skeleton

Business Insider reported: “Scientists from the Archaeological Superintendency of Latina and the University of Tor Vergata in Rome believe the bones come from different time periods. The oldest remains are thought to date from 90,000 to 100,000 years ago. The other eight Neanderthals' remains are believed to date from 50,000 to 68,000 years ago. The researchers also found traces of hyenas alongside the human remains. They also found remains of rhinoceroses, giant deer, wild horses, and vegetables.

“According to the ministry statement, many of the bones "show clear signs of gnawing," which led experts to believe the Neanderthals were attacked by hyenas, which dragged them to the cave and consumed them, Deutsche Welle reported. "Neanderthals were prey for these animals," said Mario Rolfo, a professor of archaeology at Tor Vergata University, according to The Guardian. "Hyenas hunted them, especially the most vulnerable, like sick or elderly individuals."

Neanderthals weren’t the only hominins hyenas were eating. According to Archaeology magazine A hominin bone belonging to the species Homo rhodesiensis and around 500,000 years old, found among a large deposit of bones in a cave in Casablanca, had been cracked, gnawed, and punctured — probably by an extinct hyena. The find shows how easily humans and large carnivores could change places on the food chain. [Source: Samir S. Patel, Archaeology magazine, September-October 2016]

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, Ancient Foods ; Times of London, Natural History magazine, Archaeology magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, BBC, The Guardian, Reuters, AP, AFP and various books and other publications.

Last updated April 2024

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