• "Celebrating the Richness of Paleontology through Fossil Hunting"

Article written by: Jayson Kowinsky - Fossilguy.com

Cave Bear Ursus spelaeus


Reconstruction of the European cave bear - This beautiful image was made by: serchio25.

Reconstruction of the European cave bear - This beautiful image was made by: serchio25 (Free Art License 1.3 and CC BY-SA 3.0)



Fast Facts about Cave Bears

Mounted skeleton of a Cave Bear. From the 1906 Annual report of the Director to the Board of Trustees, Field Museum of Natural History.(Public Domain)


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

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

Age: Pleistocene
The cave bear lived during the Ice Ages. It was 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 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.

Appearance:
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 mostly herbivorous, feeding on plants and roots.
However, they did sometimes eat meat. Meat sources included fish, insects, and small mammals.
Cave bears did not hunt and stalk large animals or humans.

Caves:
Cave bears did not live in caves. They used caves to hibernate during the long and harsh Ice Age winters. Since cave bears would sometimes die during hibernation, their bones are now commonly found in caves throughout Europe.


Hiking the Carpathians in Romania, in the heart of Cave Bear country.

Climbing up a limestone ridge at Hiking the Carpathians in Romania, in the heart of Cave Bear country.





Cave Bears: Paleolithic Treasures of the Carpathians


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

Climbing up a limestone ridge at Piatra Craiuli, at 7,300 feet, this is the heart of the Carpathians in Romania.



Cave bear skulls on display at the Geology Museum in Bucharest.

Cave bear skulls on display at the Geology Museum in Bucharest, Romania.


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

One 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 roots in an alpine meadow, the extensive cave systems of these mountains hold innumerable specimens of cave bear fossils. One such cave, 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 used them to hibernated in the harsh Ice Age winters. Old, 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 these bones accumulated in large numbers.

Description
Marveling at the cave bear fossils in Romania, it's interesting to imagine what these animals looked like when alive. They were 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. Cave bear skulls are distinctively wide with a steep and domed forehead.


Cave bear skull from Russia. Image Credit: Didier Descouens - CC BY-SA 3.0

Cave bear skull from Russia. Image Credit: Didier Descouens - CC BY-SA 3.0



Complete cave bear specimen left as it was found in Pestera Ursilor, Romania.

Complete cave bear specimen left as it was found in Pestera Ursilor, Romania.




Cave Bear Diet: Mainly Herbivore


Lower jaw of a cave bear showing the very few and elongated molars, making them adapted for feeding on vegetation. Photograph by Rama.

Lower jaw of a cave bear showing the very few and elongated molars, making them adapted for feeding on vegetation. Photograph by Rama, Wikimedia Commons, Cc-by-sa-2.0-fr



An interesting characteristic of these huge animals was their diet. While most bears are omnivorous, cave bears had a strong preference toward vegetation.

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. (2009) did a dental microwear study on cave bear teeth and found the microwear patterns 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 brown bears today.

Another insight into their diet is from the study of the amount of the Nitrogen-15 isotopes in their bones. Animals accumulate this isotope in their bodies. Animals that eat other animals will naturally build up higher N-15 levels. Most cave bear N-15 levels are very 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 eating large animals in the area (Richards et al, 2007). Instead, the protein most likely came from insects, small mammals, and fish.

So, although they weren't giant killing machines that stalked Ice Age humans (cave lions may have taken up that role), they did have an omnivore diet with a strong preference toward plants.



Replica of a cave bear as found in the Ekain Cave, Spain.  This replica is at Ekainbverri, in Basque country, Spain. Image Credit: GipuzkoaKultura

Replica of a cave bear as found in the Ekain Cave, Spain. This replica is at Ekainbverri, in Basque country, Spain. Image Credit: GipuzkoaKultura (CC BY-SA 2.0)




Human Interactions and The Myth of the Cave Bear Cult


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

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 they were one of the first megafauna to go extinct toward the end of the Pleistocene around 27,000 years ago. Most other megafauna survived the glacial maximum and died out 10-15,000 years ago.

A popular theory about their extinction 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 many cave bear bones at Drachenloch (Dragon's Cave) in Switzerland. He discovered, during his excavation, 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 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).

Symbolic Uses

Humans have used cave bears for symbolic reasons. One example is from the Chauvet Cave. This cave was used by cave bears for hibernation in the winters, but it was also used by humans in the summers to create cave murals. Paleolithic humans would walk among the cave bear bones and paint on the walls that contained cave bear scratch marks. One skull in the cave was purposely placed on a large flat rock by one of these early artists. The reasons are unknown.

Another example of cave bear use are Upper Paleolithic cave bear pendants made by both humans and Neanderthals. The examples shown below are pendants made from cave bear teeth in the Hohle Fels cave in Germany from Munzel, S.C., et al., 2016. Cave bear pendants have been found elsewhere, including the 45,000 year old pendants and human remains in Bacho Kiro cave in Bulgaria, which is now the oldest location for human remains in Europe (Hublin et al., 2020).

However, since cave bear remains would have been extremely common in caves, it's likely the pendants were made with cave bear skeletons already in the caves.



This is figure 12 A and D from  Munzel et al., 2016.  It shows two cave bear tooth pendants from the Hohle Fels cave in Southwest Germany. Photos of tooth pendants by H. Jensen, Univ. Tubingen.

This is item A and D from figure 12 of Munzel S.C. et al., 2016. It shows two cave bear tooth pendants from the Hohle Fels cave in Southwest Germany. Photos of tooth pendants by H. Jensen, Univ. Tubingen.



What about regular cave bear hunting for food?

With a few exceptions, there is little evidence that Neanderthals and humans hunted cave bears on a large scale. One isolated exception is a cave called Hohle Fels in southwest Germany. Here, humans hunted cave bear cubs during the early spring for nourishment (Munzel & Conard, 2004). Another exception is the cave bears in northeastern Italy. These cave bears were the last to become extinct, and the remains of some of these bears have butcher marks from the humans that lived in the area (Terlato et al., 2018).

Although bears are usually highly regarded in mythology, and there were regular bear cults, there is almost no evidence for a large scale hunting of cave bears or a Cave Bear Cult to drive them into extinction.



Image from Delannoy et al. (2015) showing the cave bear skull placed on a flat rock in Chauvet Cave.  Image by Jean-Michel Geneste.

Image from Delannoy et al. (2015) showing the cave bear skull placed on a flat rock in Chauvet Cave. Image by Jean-Michel Geneste.





Cave Bear Extinction

If there was no large scale hunting of cave bears into extinction, what could have been the cause of their demise?

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

Another hypothesis is that cave bear diets became too specialized and could not adapt during the harsh glacial maximum. During the glacial maximum, vegetation would be scarce, and while other bears modified their diets, evidence shows cave bears continued their herbivore diet and may have starved. A recent paper by Perez et al. (2020) confirms this. Perez et al. studied thier skulls and found their extensive sinus systems resulted in less structural support for chewing, which did not allow them to eat meat properly. During the glacial maximum, when vegetation waned, they could not change their diet to meat (Perez et al. 2020).

In the end, it was probably a combination of factors. Their small range, the competition for caves by humans, and the inability to change their diets most likely led to their extinction.

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



The depression in the cave is a bear wallow. Cave bears would dig these and use them as a sor tof nest to hibernate.  Image from Pont d'Arc cave (which is a copy of the Chauvet Cave). Image by: Claude Valette - CC BY-SA 4.0

Cave bear bones and a Depression. The depression in the cave is a bear wallow. Cave bears would dig these to use as a sort of nest to hibernate. Image from Pont d'Arc cave (which is a copy of the Chauvet Cave). Image by: Claude Valette CC BY-SA 4.0




Recommended Books and Documentaries


The Cave Bear Story
By: Bjorn Kurten

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 provides a unique glimpse of some of the oldest human artwork ever discovered. It's available as a DVD, BlueRay, and Streaming.





References / Works Cited


Delannoy, Jean-Jacques & David, Bruno & Geneste, Jean-Michel & Katherine, Margaret & Barker, Bryce & Whear, Ray & Gunn, Robert. (2015). The social construction of caves and rockshelters: Chauvet Cave (France) and Nawarla Gabarnmang (Australia). Antiquity. 87. 12-29. DOI:10.1017/S0003598X00048596.

Gabriele Terlato, Herve Bocherens, Matteo Romandini, Nicola Nannini, Keith A. Hobson & Marco Peresani. (2018) Chronological and Isotopic data support a revision for the timing of cave bear extinction in Mediterranean Europe, Historical Biology, DOI: 10.1080/08912963.2018.1448395.

Hublin, J., Sirakov, N., Aldeias, V. et al. (2020) Initial Upper Palaeolithic Homo sapiens from Bacho Kiro Cave, Bulgaria. Nature. DOI: 10.1038/s41586-020-2259-z.

Michael P. Richards, Martina Pacher, Mathias Stiller, Jerome Quiles, Michael Hofreiter, Silviu Constantin, Joao Zilhao, 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 Paleobiologie, Geneve (december) 23 (2).

Munzel, Susanne & Wolf, Sibylle & Drucker, Dorothee & Conard, Nicholas. (2016). The exploitation of mammoth in the Swabian Jura (SW-Germany) during the Aurignacian and Gravettian period. Quaternary International. 445. DOI: 10.1016/j.quaint.2016.08.013.

S Peigne, C Goillot, M Germonpre, 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.

Perez, Alejandro & Tseng, Z. & Grandal-D'Anglade, Aurora & Rabeder, Gernot & Pastor, Francisco & Figueirido, Borja. (2020) Biomechanical simulations reveal a trade-off between adaptation to glacial climate and dietary niche versatility in European cave bears. Science Advances. 6. eaay9462. DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.aay9462.

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



Additional Images of Cave Bears


Image of the cave bear carcass found in the Siberian permafrost on Bolshoy Lyakhovsky Island. Image Credit: NEFU

A well preserved cave bear has been recently found melting out of the permafrost layers on Bolshoy Lyakhovsky Island. Click here to view the News Story Image Credit: NEFU



Cave bear skeleton in Bear Cave in Kletno, Poland.  Image by: Jacek Halicki - CC BY-SA 3.0 PL

Skeleton of a cave bear from the Natural History museum in Bucharest, Romania. Cave bear skeleton in Bear Cave in Kletno, Poland. Image by: Jacek Halicki - CC BY-SA 3.0 PL



Skeleton of a cave bear from the Natural History museum in Bucharest.

Skeleton of a cave bear from the Natural History museum in Bucharest, Romania.



The skeleton of a cave bear found in the bear cave near winds on the lake, Austria.   Image by: Liuthalas - CC BY-SA 4.0

Skeleton of a cave bear from the Natural History museum in Bucharest, Romania. The skeleton of a cave bear found in the bear cave near winds on the lake, Austria. Image by: Liuthalas - CC BY-SA 4.0



Skeleton of a cave bear as found in Jaskinia Niedzwiedzia Cave in Kletno, Poland. Image by: Tanja5 - CC BY 3.0

Skeleton of a cave bear as found in Jaskinia Niedzwiedzia Cave in Kletno, Poland. Image by: Tanja5 - CC BY 3.0



Cave bear bones as they lay in Pottenstein (Devils Cave), Germany. Image by: Janericloebe - Public Domain.

Cave bear bones as they lay in Pottenstein (Devils Cave), Germany. Image by: Janericloebe - Public Domain.


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