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Could you Bear to eat Pooh?

By Josephine Mills, on 10 September 2018

Well our ancestors did… Bear was most definitely on the menu in the Palaeolithic and if you think bears are big now you should take a trip back to the Stone Age!

Bears are an incredibly diverse species that have evolved from a single genus but now occupy dramatically different ecological niches across the planet. Because of their weight and size, they are classed as megafauna. Megafauna are large animals that usually live for a long time, have slow population growth, and low mortality because they don’t have many natural predators. There are lots of very cool prehistoric megafauna like the mammoth, sabre tooth cat, and several distinct species of bear.

Humans have a long history interacting with bears, mainly because of our shared preference for sheltered spaces like caves and eating the same types of food. In Europe, both Cave Bears (Ursus spelaus) and Brown Bears (Ursus arctos) were present during the Middle Palaeolithic, which was 250,000-40,000 years ago and most frequently associated with the Neanderthals.

This is a diagram of the skull of a brown bear found at Banwell Cave in the UK. Drawing by Tabitha Paterson.

This is a diagram of the top part of a cave bear skull. If you compare it to the brown bear skull above you can see the distinctive elongation and dome-shape of the cranium. This is one of the ways to tell apart brown and cave bear skeletons. Drawing by Tabitha Paterson.

 

New research published by Romandini et al. (2018) highlights the relationship between Neanderthals and bears in southern Europe by studying bear and animal bones from Rio Secco and Fumane caves (Italy). The study focuses on animal bones found at both caves, particularly bear remains. The bones were identified, and any cut marks present were studied using 3 types of microscope to separate those made by carnivores from marks made by humans using stone tools. The results were then compared with databases of known types of cut marks established via experimental work. Results suggest that Neanderthals were exploiting bears as a resource at both sites; however, the sites were slightly different.

The authors propose that Rio Secco cave was used by bears for hibernation, the period over the winter where they sleep to conserve energy. There are clues around the cave that indicate it served this special purpose like scratch marks and shiny areas on the cave walls polished by bears rubbing past them . This is a phenomenon called Bärenschliffe and is discussed in this great blog post by Ross Barnet on the website Twilight Beasts. The animal remains found at Rio Secco are reported from two archaeological layers, one layer contains 39.3% cave bear and 1.6% brown bear; and the other 27% cave bear and 0.2% brown bear. Many of these bones have cut marks indicating butchery by Neanderthals, suggesting that the cave was actively targeted to exploit the hibernating bears as a food resource. This is supported by the scarcity of other resources in the surrounding landscape—like flint used to make tools—meaning people probably wouldn’t have been in the region hunting and gathering more generally. Instead they were making specific organised trips to hunt the bears!

A selection of bear bones from Rio Secco Cave showing the locations of human made cut marks. Image Credit: Romandini et al. (2018)

 

The human signature at the Fumane site is noticeably different and the authors suggest archaeological evidence represents periods of intense and repeated Neanderthal occupation. The assemblage contains a wide variety of butchered fauna demonstrating that food resources were plentiful, and the site is situated in a raw material rich region. In this case it appears that unfortunate bears were an occasional item on the menu rather than the specific reason the humans were present! This is supported by the lack of bear remains, which only amount to 2.2% and 1.4% of the two archaeological layers reported. The authors state that it is harder to differentiate between the types of bear as some skeletal elements are missing but overall there are more brown bear present. This absence of some bones particularly the back bone and pelvis indicate that the bears were butchered elsewhere, and prime cuts of meat brought back to the cave. Overall these contrasting archaeological contexts suggest very different hunting behaviour at both caves with the former a targeted resource and the latter a more opportunistic way of hunting.

There are two exciting implications from this study; it adds to the body of evidence that Neanderthals specifically targeted megafauna using a sophisticated knowledge of animal behaviour. It also provides more indication for co-operative hunting in Neanderthal populations—I certainly wouldn’t want to try to take down a bear on my own, even a sleeping one!

A brown bear and a polar bear again drawn by the talented Tabitha Paterson (Twitter handle: @TabithaPaterson)

 

 References:

Romandini, M., Terlato, G., Nannini, N., Tagliacozzo, A., Benazzi, S. and Peresani, M., 2018. Bears and humans, a Neanderthal tale. Reconstructing uncommon behaviors from zooarchaeological evidence in southern Europe. Journal of Archaeological Science90, pp.71-91.

Also a big thank you to bear specialist Tabitha Paterson for advice!