Neanderthals hunted cave lions with wooden spears and feasted on their meat at least 48,000 years ago, according to a study of ancient bones.
The research is the first to show how our prehistoric ancestors had the hunting skills to take on the fearsome beasts, despite their rudimentary tools.
But the cave lions were not their only food source. The study suggests that Neanderthals hunted the predators for some sort of ritualistic purpose, Gabriele Russo, zooarchaeologist of the Universitat Tubingen in Germany, told Insider.
“This suggests that the Neanderthals had a special relationship with nature, said Russo. She is the author of the research.
Two points in time show Neanderthal’s relationship to the beasts
The study, published in the peer-reviewed journal Scientific Reports, looked at two sets of remains from cave lions, which were large cats that roamed Eurasia before going extinct more than 10,000 years ago.
Scratches on ancient bones found near the modern town of Siegsdorf in Bavaria, Germany, provided a snapshot of a battle against the fearsome predator about 48,000 years ago.
What is clear is that a tool was used to deliver the dying blow to the animal, most likely a thrusting spear piercing through the cave lion’s chest while he was lying on his side.
Other markings on the bones could have been caused from wooden javelins thrown at lion.
It is possible that the Neanderthals scouted the lion and hurled javelins at it to wear out the animal before they killed. The lion’s skeleton suggests it was quite old and may have been weakened after being kicked out of its pride, so it’s also possible the hunters ambushed it during its sleep, Russo said.
Several cut marks also show that not only did the Neanderthals kill the predator, but also ate its meat.
This evidence is the oldest of humans killing large predators, Russo said to Insider.
That the Neanderthals were able to take down big animals isn’t that surprising. Previous evidence suggests they hunted elephants, giant deer, wolves, and bison, Science reported.
But chasing a cave-lion is a different challenge.
“Hunting a predator is not a very smart thing to do, because they are dangerous and you would put much more effort in finding them because they’re more rare in the environment compared to herbivores,” Russo said.
The study suggests the hunt was designed “to get something on a social level, some social rewards,” he said.
Another set of remains — two partial cave lion digits and part of a paw — may go some way to explain why Neanderthals may have taken that risk.
These small bones, found in the so-called Unicorn Cave in 2019 in the Harz Mountains of Germany, showed marks of being severed with stone tools, suggesting that careful attention was paid to keeping the cat’s fearsome claws as part of the pelt during the skinning process.
” “They are definitely showing behavior that indicates something beyond simply survival”, Davorka Radovic, an archaeologist from the Croatian Natural History Museum, who wasn’t part of the study, said to Science. “It’s not only us who are capable of complex behavior.”
Neanderthals may have had a spiritual connection with their environment
Modern humans, or Homo sapiens, are generally said to have migrated from Africa about 42,000 years ago — leaving little doubt about who may have left these marks on the cave lion remains.
The findings add to the growing body of evidence suggesting they were far more sophisticated than they were long thought to be.
“We know that they were great hunters, and there is lots of evidence that were skilled hide workers making clothing elements,” said Russo.
“We have known for some time that the ancients wore personal ornaments like eagle’s talons. We know they use pigments to maybe we don’t know what but probably paint their bodies,” he said.
“The lion pelts and the hunting of the lion now also suggests that they had this special relationship with predators — maybe they saw them as fellow hunters or they were they had fear of them, or they worshipped them,” he said.
“There was some sort of feeling that actually we can understand because we are humans and they are humans,” he said.