Celebrating the Richness of Paleontology through Fossil Hunting

Cave Bears: Paleolithic Treasures of the Carpathians: Facts and Information about the Ursus spelaeus

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Hiking Piatra Craiuli, a narrow limestone ridge, heading toward Varful La Om, the highest peak in Romania.
"At around 7,300 feet, we are hiking Piatra Craiuli, a narrow limestone ridge, heading toward Varful La Om, the highest peak in Romania."
Cave bear skulls on display at the Geology Museum in Bucharest.
"Cave bear skulls on display at the Geology Museum in Bucharest."

Cave Bears: Paleolithic Treasures of the Carpathians

Climbing up a limestone ridge at
Piatra Craiuli, the heart of the Carpathians in Romania

A large swath of Romania, from Transylvania to the border regions of Crisana, contain the heart and soul of the Carpathian Mountains. This rugged area, full of steep, jagged ridgelines and cave systems, contains the largest remaining virgin forests and the largest populations of brown bears and wolves in Europe.

This past summer,I was lucky enough to wander about Romania, hiking the wild forests and limestone ridges of the Carpathians. Far from civilization, it felt like a trip through time into the Upper Paleolithic. Maybe it's the "Amateur Paleontologist" in me, but I almost expected to see a giant Irish elk or a wooly mammoth appear from the dense thickets of Norway spruce. Luckily, one Paleolithic treasure I knew I could view was the cave bear. Although I obviously wouldn't see one munching on shrubbery in an alpine meadow, the extensive cave systems of these mountains hold innumerable specimens of Cave bear fossils. For example, Igric Cave was found to have over 300 nearly complete Cave bear skulls alone! There is even a cave called "Pestera Ursilor" which means Bears' Cave, where over 140 specimens have been found.

In Europe, caves are synonymous with cave bears… But why? Evidence shows cave bears didn't actually live in the caves, but only hibernated there in the harsh Ice Age winters. Old bears and injured or sick bears would sometimes die during hibernation. Their bodies would stay in the caves and be scavenged upon by animals such as the cave hyena. Over thousands of years the bones would accumulate in large numbers.

Marveling at the cave bear fossils in Romania, it's interesting to imagine what these animals were like when they were alive. They were obviously huge animals, with males averaging around 1000 lbs, which is similar in size to today's Alaskan kodiak bears, or about 30% larger than the brown bear. Their skulls are distinctively wide with a steep forehead.

Complete Cave bear specimen left as it was found in Pestera Ursilor
Complete Cave bear specimen left as it was found in Pestera Ursilor.

Cave Bear Diet

of a cave bear from the Natural History museum in Bucharest
Cave bear skeleton from
the NNHM in Bucharest

An interesting characteristic of these huge animals was their diet. A popular misconception is that cave bears were strictly herbivores. However, like most bears, they were omnivorous with a preference toward vegetation. Sometimes their diets varied greatly depending on their location and environment.

Unlike all other bears, as cave bears evolved, their dentition changed to accommodate a more herbivore friendly diet. They lost most of their premolars and the last premolar became elongated, creating a more effective chewing surface for grinding plants (Pinto Llona et al., 2005). However, Peigne et. al. in 2009 did a dental microwear study on cave bear teeth and found the microwear patterns on their teeth were distinctly different than that of a strict vegetarian diet, and closer to generalist omnivores. Along with plants, they also ate insects and meat (small mammals) to supplement their protein intake, much like most brown bears today.

Another insight into their diet is from the study of the amount of the Nitrogen-15 isotope in their bones. Animals accumulate this isotope in their bodies. So animals that eat other animals will naturally build up higher N-15 levels than herbivores. Most cave bear N-15 levels are low. One study showed that 83% of the bears, sampled from all over Europe, contained low N-15 levels, indicative of a mainly herbivore diet (Richards et al, 2007). However 17% had higher levels of N-15. Specifically, cave bear populations from a cave in Bulgaria, and two caves in Romania had N-15 levels indicative of carnivores. In one of the Romanian caves, Pestera cu Oase, the bears had N-15 levels as high as wolves.

However, the authors also studied Carbon-13 isotope ratios to figure out the food source. They concluded the animal protein did not come from the herbivores in the area, such as deer (Richards et al, 2007). This supports the 2009 microwear study that shows the protein could have come from insects, small mammals, and even freshwater fish.

So, although they weren't giant killing machines that stalked and ate Neanderthals and European early modern humans (cave lions may have taken up that role), they did have a varied omnivore diet.

The Myth of the Cave Bear Cult and Cave Bear Extinction

Painting of a cave bear
in the Chauvet cave

"30,000 year old prehistoric painting of 3 cave bears from the Chauvet cave in France"

Finally, one can't marvel at cave bears without discussing the cause of their demise. The extinction of cave bears is interesting in the fact that they were one of the first megafauna to go extinct toward the end of the Paleocene. Cave bears went extinct around 27,000 years ago during the last glacial maximum. Most other megafauna survived the glacial maximum, and died out 10-15,000 years ago.

Numerous theories have been made about their extinction. A popular one is that humans and/or Neanderthals hunted them to near extinction. This reasoning is based off an outdated, but still popular myth of an ancient "Cave Bear Cult." This ancient cult supposedly worshiped the cave bear and ritually hunted it, using the skulls and bones for religious purposes. The cult idea arose in 1917 when Emil Bachler uncovered a cave full of cave bear bones at Drachenloch (Dragon's cave) in Switzerland. During his excavations, among his discoveries in the cave were cave bear skulls stacked in rock boxes, cave bear leg and arm bones nested along the cave walls, a leg bone unnaturally wedged through a bear's cheek bone, and two firepits from Neanderthals.

Unfortunately, using modern archaeology techniques, it has been found that the skulls and long bones will naturally sort like this due to forces from running water, falling cave roof slabs, animal scavengers, and even other cave bears shuffling bones around while trying to make hibernation spots. All of the Cave Bear Cult evidence from this cave has been shown to be invalid (Wunn, 2001).

Unfortunately, many other archaeologists and paleontologists at that time quickly jumped in and found other caves with similar layouts. A "Cave Bear Cult" is a very romantic idea, and today even with almost no credible evidence, the myth prevails.

Although bears are usually highly regarded in mythology, and there were regular bear cults, and also Neanderthals and humans lived in cave bear habitat, there is no evidence for a Cave Bear Cult that ceremoniously killed cave bears. What about regular cave bear hunting for food?

There is little evidence that Neanderthals and the European early humans even hunted cave bears. There is only one exemplary instance in Southwest Germany, where in a cave called Hohle Fels, humans hunted cave bear cubs during the early spring for nourishment (Munzel & Conard, 2004). So, if there was no large scale hunting of cave bears into extinction, what could have been the cause?

Neanderthals and humans may still be partially to blame. As Neanderthals and then humans spread throughout Europe, they used caves as shelter. Cave bears would not have been able to use these occupied caves anymore for hibernation in which they depended. A prevailing theory is that Neanderthals and humans competed with the cave bears. This may be the first instance of habitat loss due to humans!

Another theory is that cave bear diets became too specialized, and during the harsh glacial maximum, they simply starved to death. The reality, like most answers, it is probably a combination of all of these theories.

At any rate, traveling to Romania to see these myth creating treasures of the Carpathians up close and in their natural state is awe inspiring!

Recommended Books on Ice Age Cave Bears:

Recommended Books for more Information:

The Cave Bear Story
By: Björn Kurtén

This is a well written book about the life and extinction of cave bears. It is written by one of the foremost bear experts, however it is not overly technical. It's a great read for anyone interested in the life of cave bears!

Cave Art by Jean Clottes. 2010
The earliest evidence of human art is from caves such as the Chauvet cave. This book, "Cave Art" contains around 250 beautiful cave art images, it gives a background on human prehistory, explores the origins of art and creativity, and gives detailed descriptions of many cave paintings, including many from Chauvet.

Cave of Forgotten Dreams
by Werner Herzog and Jean Clottes Jean Clottes. 2011
This documentary follows an expedition into the Chauvet Cave and lets us view the ancient paintings in stunning high definition. This documentary proviees a unique glimpse of some of the oldest human artwork ever discovered. It's available as a DVD, BlueRay, and Streaming.

References and Works Cited:

Michael P. Richards, Martina Pacher, Mathias Stiller, Jérôme Quilès, Michael Hofreiter, Silviu Constantin, João Zilhão, and Erik Trinkaus. (2008) Isotopic evidence for omnivory among European cave bears: Late Pleistocene Ursus spelaeus from the Pestera cu Oase, Romania.- PNAS 105: 100-104.

Munzel, Susanne C. & Conard, Nicholas J. (2004) Cave Bear Hunting in the Hohle Fels, a Cave Site in the AchValley, Swabian Jura. Revue de Paléobiologie, Genève (december) 23 (2).

S Peigné, C Goillot, M Germonpré, C Blondel, O Bignon, G Merceron. (2009) Predormancy omnivory in European cave bears evidenced by a dental microwear analysis of Ursus spelaeus from Goyet, Belgium. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 106 (36), 15390-15393.

Wunn, I. (2001) Cave bear worship in the Palaeolithic Consideraciones sobre el culto al Oso de las Cavernas en el Paleolítico. Cadernos Lab. Xeolóxico de Laxe, Coruña. 2001. Vol. 26, pp. 457-463.

Fast Facts about Cave Bears

Name: Cave Bear - Ursus spelaeus - "Cave Bear"

Taxonomy: Class: Mammal - Order: Carnivore - Family: Ursidae - Genus: Ursus - Species: spelaeus

Age: Pleistocene
The Cave Bear was an Ice Age animal. It was also one of the first Ice Age animals to die off around 24,000 years ago.

Discovery: Johann Friederich Esper, 1774
Although cave bear remains have been found throuought most of history, and Ice Age humans even painted actual living cave bears, the cave bear was first scientifically described in 1774 by Johann Friederich Esper.

Distribution: Europe:
Cave bear fossils are found throughout Europe and parts of Eurasia

Male cave bears weighed around 1000 lbs and were similar in size to today's Alaskan kodiak bear. This is about 30% larger than the brown bear. Their skulls are distinctively wide with a steep forehead.

Diet: Omnivore
Analysis shows many cave bears were more herbivorous, feeding on plants and roots, than omnivorous.
However, they did eat meat. Meat sources included fish, insects, and small mammals.
These animals did not hunt and stalk large animals and humans.

Cave bears didn't live in caves. They used them to hibernate in during the long and harsh Ice Age winters.

Hiking Piatra Craiuli, a narrow limestone ridge, heading toward Varful La Om, the highest peak in Romania.

Hiking the Carpathians in Romania