Cave lion hunted for its pelt

New evidence suggests humans may have contributed to the lions’ extinction.

Scarce archaeological evidence has made the disappearance of the Eurasian cave lion around 14,000 years ago a mystery. A new study suggests that Upper Paleolithic humans may have contributed to the lion’s extinction by hunting them for their pelts.

Marián Cueto, the Universidad de Cantabria, and colleagues examined nine fossilized cave lion toe bones from the Upper Paleolithic cave site of La Garma. The bones showed evidence of having been skinned with stone tools, using a specialized technique to keep the claws of the lion attached to the fur.

Cave lion with a reindeer. Credit: Heinrich Harder
Cave lion with a reindeer. Credit: Heinrich Harder

“Lion fossils are not common, and cave lion fossils with signs of human processing are less common. These are rare finds, and they usually appear as isolated bones in the archaeological site. In La Garma we have found claw fossils that belong to one individual and can be related with the skinning process in a ritual context,” says Cueto.

Researchers believe that the toe bones were all from one pelt which may have decorated the occupied cave. While Cueto admits that certainty doesn’t exist in archaeology, La Garma is an exciting insight into cave lions and Upper Paleolithic humans.

“It's like a time machine. When you walk into the cave it is like travelling back in time to a specific moment in our evolution. This exceptional site allows us to know without a doubt that a lion pelt was used inside the cave, probably to cover a hut” says Cueto.

Eurasian cave lions, which were likely among the largest lion species ever to have lived, would have been a dangerous and difficult hunt. In many historical societies, owning the pelt of a dangerous animal would be an important trophy and a symbol of power.

By tying cave lion pelts to humans, Cueto believes that humans must be seriously considered as a determinant factor in the lion’s extinction.

“Cave lions also inhabited caves to raise their cubs, and as the Upper Palaeolithic human population increased this could have been prejudicial for lions. Therefore, humans as a determinant factor in cave lion extinction must be taken seriously,” says Cueto.

Cueto and colleagues will continue investigating this “awesome site” for any remaining surprises.