Neanderthals hunted—and revered—cave lions

Cut marks on a cave lion’s bones suggest Neanderthals butchered it for meat after hunting it with spears
Cut marks on a cave lion’s bones suggest Neanderthals butchered it for meat after hunting it with spears, as imagined in this artist’s reconstruction.JULIO LACERDA/NLD

On the day it was killed, the cave lion was old and probably starving. But the big cat was still formidable—more than 300 kilograms of muscle, teeth, claw, and bone. Yet wielding nothing more than a wooden spear, a Neanderthal hunter brought the beast down with a ferocious jab to the rib cage 48,000 years ago.

In a paper published today in Scientific Reports, researchers reconstruct the successful hunt, which happened in what is now central Germany. It’s the oldest direct evidence of Neanderthals hunting cave lions, big cats that once dominated ice age Europe and went extinct 13,000 years ago.

In the same paper, the scientists also present evidence that Neanderthal hunters weren’t just after meat: Cave lion bones from another German cave dated to about 190,000 years ago show our ancient cousins took special care to prepare the cat’s pelt, skinning it to preserve paws and claws in a sort of trophy that would be familiar to big game hunters today.

Although separated by nearly 150,000 years, both finds suggest Neanderthals had a special regard for cave lions. “They definitely are showing behavior that points to something beyond simple survival,” says Davorka Radovčić, an archaeologist at the Croatian Natural History Museum who was not part of the research. “It’s not only us who are capable of complex behavior.”

Skeletal evidence suggests Neanderthals killed a cave lion with a wooden spear 48,000 years ago
Skeletal evidence suggests Neanderthals killed a cave lion with a wooden spear 48,000 years ago.VOLKER MINKUS/NLD

To reconstruct the hunt, researchers reexamined a complete cave lion skeleton excavated in the 1980s at a site called Siegsdorf in the Bavarian Alps south of Munich. Along with cut marks indicating it was skinned, the big cat—closely related to but larger and heavier than a modern lion—had a round indentation on the inner side of one rib and scrapes on some bones.

Earlier researchers had identified the damage as a bite mark from another carnivore. But reinspecting the skeleton revealed the puncture crater was too big to have been left by another predator of the time, even another cave lion. “There was no overlap between carnivore teeth and the damage to the rib,” says team member Annemieke Milks, an archaeologist at the University of Reading.

Instead, Milks and others matched the mark to those made during previous experiments stabbing animal carcasses with wooden spears, along with evidence from elephants killed by spear-wielding hunters in Africa. “It fits really well with hunting lesions,” Milks says. “It couldn’t be anything but damage from a spear.”

Other clues helped reconstruct details of the hunt. The lion’s bones show it was an old male; in modern lion prides, males past their prime are often forced out to fend for themselves. University of Tübingen archaeozoologist Gabriele Russo says this individual might have been isolated and struggling to feed itself. Perhaps harassed by Neanderthals throwing wooden javelins, the angle of the injury shows the lion was lying on its side when the killing blow came.

This fits well with other evidence that Neanderthals could bring down big game, including giant elephants, wolves, deer, and bison. “Rich and complex relations with the natural world fits well with what we know about Neanderthal relations to [their] environment,” says Ludovic Slimak, an archaeologist at CNRS, the French national research agency, who was not involved with the study.

Still, hunts could be for subsistence or self-defense in a prized cave, says Sabine Gaudzinski-Windheuser, an archaeozoologist at the Leibniz Center for Archaeology who was also not part of the research team. Other finds suggest cave bears and lions were skinned or butchered like many other prey, she notes. “There’s a lot of evidence these carnivores were treated as usual kills.”

But the authors offer another discovery they say suggests Neanderthals may have held lions in special regard. Digging deep within a German cavern known as Unicorn Cave in 2019, archaeologists from the same group found bones from the paw of a cave lion—the equivalent of a few fingertips, with cut marks from stone tools visible on the small extremities. Russo argues cut marks so close to the end of the bones mean the pelt was carefully removed in a way that left it intact and preserved the claws.

That suggests use as a trophy or lion-skin rug, rather than a simple byproduct of skinning the animal for food. “It only makes sense if the pelt had some symbolic significance for them,” says Thomas Terberger, an archaeologist at the Lower Saxony State Office for Heritage who led the work at Unicorn Cave. “It’s more than just getting some meat—it’s a clear signal Neanderthals valued trophies of these animals.” (The claws would have made the lion skin uncomfortable to wear, and a thick cave bear pelt would have been more practical as a cold-weather wrap.)

“They intentionally left the claws in the pelt, and that’s aesthetic,” Russo says. “It would have been so much easier to cut the pelt at the wrist.”

The finds add to growing evidence that Neanderthals exhibited complex behavior and may have had an aesthetic sensibility with the capacity for symbolic thought, in ways modern humans would find familiar, Terberger says. Recent work has suggested Neanderthals created cave paintings and crafted eagle claws into jewelry.

In the end, cave lions outlasted Neanderthals, surviving long enough for modern humans to paint them on the walls of European caves and shape mammoth ivory figurines in their image. The new finds suggest the lions loomed just as large as our extinct cousins. “I think it was a majestic animal,” Russo says, “and a main character in Neanderthal life.”


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