Prehistoric humans may have hunted cave lions to extinction for their pelts, turning them into decorative items for their ancient dwellings, new research suggests.
La Garma, a cave in Spain, is the site of many well-preserved artifacts and fossils dating back to tens of thousands of years ago. In the multi-level structure are cave lion fossils, which scientists discovered had cut marks on the claws similar to what animal bones have after being skinned for pelts.
Marian Cueto, study co-author and an archaeologist at the University of Cantabria in Spain, told Live Science,
We have found claw fossils that belong to one individual and can be related with the skinning process in a ritual context.
The Eurasian cave lion, Panthera spelaeus, was one of the biggest lions on the planet. The smaller African lion’s ancestor split off from this species around 700,000 years ago. Cave lions are believed to have roamed much of Europe and Alaska, going extinct in Europe around 14,000 years ago. The last cave lion died in Alaska around 13,000 years ago, a 2011 study reported.
These new fossils at La Garma in the Cantabrian Mountains were found on the lower level of the cave. La Garma is a massive hollow, with human burial sites on the upper level and animal bones in the lower one. Archeologists have found evidence of human life as far back as 70,000 years ago inside, along with animal paintings on the walls. A rock had collapsed, blocking the entry to the lower level and preserving it for millions of years.
Cueto describes the site, “It’s like a time machine. When you walk into the cave it is like traveling back in time to a specific moment in our evolution.”
The cave lion fossils had cut marks similar to those used to separate claws from the rest of the foot, according to researchers. It’s the same procedure vets now use to de-claw house cats. The marks suggest that humans hunted the animals and likely removed their pelts. Another possibility is that they had some ritualistic significance, Cueto says, as the lion was a “difficult and dangerous animals to hunt.” It could then have been some kind of trophy for early humans.
In Germany, cave lion teeth were unearthed, and appeared to have been used as ornaments or tools.
The date of the La Garma cave fossils indicate that they may have come from one of the few remaining cave lions in the world. This in turn implicates that humans contributed greatly to their extinction, the researchers write. “Humans could have played a much more active role in the extinction of this animal. It is not the only cause for the cave lion extinction, but it is a determinant one.”
It may also be possible that humans and the cave lions saw each other as a threat, as cave lions raised their cubs in caves, which humans also occupied, Cueto adds.
The study was published in PLOS ONE.