Did humans hunt cave lions to extinction?

Rituals conducted by Paleolithic humans might have contributed to the extinction of one of the largest ever species of lion, a new study suggests.

The Eurasian cave lion (Panthera spelaea) roamed parts of Europe, Asia and North America during the Upper Paleolithic epoch, and is thought to have died out around 14,000 years ago. Fossils abound, and prehistoric art depicts cave lions in great detail, but their relationship with humans isn’t well understood.

People from the period are known as avid hunters of other species, so a research group led by Marian Cueto at the Universidad de Cantabria in Spain set out to examine the dynamic between human and cave lion.

Cueto and her team analysed nine ancient cave lion phalanxes – toe bones – uncovered in La Garma, a well-preserved Paleolithic cave in northern Spain.

The team was looking for signs that the bones had been scraped, shaped or burned, which may suggest humans purposely tampered with them after killing the animal.

Indeed, the results, published in the journal PLOS One, show precise cut marks and evidence of scraping, both of which indicate human intervention post mortem.

“These modifications, produced with lithic tools, can be grouped into specific areas of the claw anatomical structure, thereby revealing cutting preferences and well-defined actions,” the researchers write in their paper.

Interestingly, the cuts mirror the technique used by modern hunters to ensure claws stay attached during the skinning process, suggesting the lions may have been hunted for their pelts.

Furthermore, the researchers say the fact that some bones were positioned inside the hut, while others lay outside, could indicate “the fur could also have had a function related to covering the floor”. They suggest a “potential linkage” with “ritual activities” as large felines have been linked to symbolism in other studies of the period.

“Upper Paleolithic graphic expression clearly places lions in a prominent hierarchic position in the early humans’ symbolic world, giving this animal an important role in human culture as a motif,” the researchers explain.

Cueto and colleagues say the cut-marks show expertise in tool use, suggesting this wasn’t a once-off hunt. Someone with a deep knowledge of the anatomy of cave lions made these incisions.

Although their hypothesis is by no means conclusive, the researchers say the finding highlights “the role of human activity in the extinction of carnivores […] in addition to other factors such as climate change, prey numbers, or species replacement”.

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