Early Human Ancestors Hunted Giant Cave Lions

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People have been hunting predators for tens of thousands of years. A study published last week in Scientific Reports shows the first evidence of predator hunting by early human ancestors—who appeared to have targeted prehistoric cave lions. 

The findings hinge on two different sets of cave lion bones. One set—a nearly fully intact skeleton—was found in a cave in the Bavarian Alps near Siegsdorf, Germany. The remains are thought to be about 48,000 years old. Scientists recently used digital 3-D microscopy and micro-CT scanning to show that Neanderthals used a wooden spear thrust to deal a fatal blow to the cave lion. They then butchered the lion. 

“The Siegsdorf findings provide the earliest concrete evidence of humans hunting down the formidable lion, the ultimate hunter of the animal kingdom,” Gabriele Russo, the paper’s lead author, told the New York Times. The male lion was older at the time of its death. “An old lone lion may have posed a threat to the Neanderthals or competed for their prey. Perhaps the Neanderthals saw an opportunity for an easier kill or viewed the lion as a means to prove themselves and decided to hunt it.” 

Julio Lacerdo/NLD

This artist’s rendering shows a team of Neanderthal hunters field butchering a cave lion.

Russo and the paper’s other authors also examined the remains of a lion in another German site called Unicorn Cave. Those bones are dated to 190,000 years ago. Scientists argue that cut marks from stone tools on the cat’s extremities show that the Neanderthals not only butchered the lion but carefully preserved its pelt with the claws attached.

“It only makes sense [that they kept the claws attached] if the pelt had some symbolic significance for them,” archeologist Thomas Terberger told Science. “It’s more than just getting some meat—it’s a clear signal Neanderthals valued trophies of these animals.”

Together, both findings illustrate a remarkable ability—and desire—of early human ancestors to hunt apex predators and celebrate their kills. According to the Natural History Museum, Neanderthals are considered “humans” that were a distinct species from Homo Sapiens. The species went extinct around 30,000 years ago. 

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The cave lion is a prehistoric species that resembles a mountain lion. According to AZ Animals, cave lions were at least 20 percent larger than mountain lions and could reach weights of up to 700 pounds. 
In a statement, Thomas Terberger, another author of the study, suggests his team’s findings can be traced to today’s predator hunters: “The interest of humans to gain respect and power from a lion trophy is rooted in Neanderthal behavior.”



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