Neanderthals: The Apex Predators Who Hunted Cave Lions

Margie Jones

A groundbreaking new study has shed light on the remarkable capabilities and behaviors of our ancient relatives, the Neanderthals. Recent excavations at the Einhornhöhle (Unicorn Cave) in the Harz Mountains, Lower Saxony, Germany, have uncovered evidence that Neanderthals not only hunted cave lions but also used their skins for various purposes. This discovery challenges our perception of Neanderthals as primitive beings and suggests they had a far more complex and advanced lifestyle than previously thought.

Not Just Hunted: Neanderthals Were Hunters of Cave Lions, Study Finds - The  New York Times

In 2019, the excavation team unearthed a treasure trove of Ice Age animal remains, including bones of the extinct cave lion. The bones were discovered in a cave gallery, dating back more than 200,000 years. Among these remains, researchers found a toe bone from a cave lion with a distinctive cut mark. This find was a pivotal moment, indicating that Neanderthals skillfully removed the lion’s pelt while keeping its sharp claws attached, presumably to use the skin for their own purposes.

What’s more, the bones at Einhornhöhle provided an intriguing context for this discovery. To validate their findings, lead author Gabriele Russo and archaeologist Dr. Annemieke Milks examined the remains of a cave lion found in Bavaria. A closer look at the skeleton revealed unusual damage on a rib. Upon further analysis, they identified the damage as the result of a weapon impact, suggesting that the lion was killed by a spear thrust into its abdomen when it was already on the ground.

Russo noted, “The rib lesion clearly differs from bite marks of carnivores and shows the typical breakage pattern of a lesion caused by a hunting weapon.” Dr. Milks added, “The lion was probably killed by a spear that was thrust into the lion’s abdomen when it was already lying on the ground.”

This remarkable finding, a 50,000-year-old skeleton, provides the first concrete evidence that Neanderthals not only hunted the apex predator, the cave lion but also consumed its meat. This behavior challenges previous assumptions about Neanderthal hunting practices, suggesting they had the capability to take down formidable creatures.

Cave lions, with a shoulder height of approximately 1.3 meters, were among the most dangerous animals in Eurasia for over 200,000 years. They hunted large herbivores such as mammoths, bison, and horses, as well as the formidable cave bear. Their presence in Ice Age caves is responsible for the name “cave lion.”

This discovery also challenges the previous belief that interactions with cave lions as a cultural symbol were reserved for Homo sapiens. Among the earliest artworks of Homo sapiens are the famous Swabian Jura cave paintings, featuring the cave lion as a prominent motif, dated to around 40,000 years ago. Cave lions also appear in rock art panels in the Grotte Chauvet in south-eastern France, dating back about 34,000 years.

Thomas Terberger, speaker of the project, highlighted the significance of the cave lion in Neanderthal culture: “The interest of humans to gain respect and power from a lion trophy is rooted in Neanderthal behavior, and until modern times, the lion is a powerful symbol of rulers.”

This discovery contributes to our growing understanding of the behavioral similarities between Neanderthals and early Homo sapiens. Recent findings, such as an engraved giant deer bone from Einhornhöhle, have shown Neanderthals’ ability to produce and communicate with symbols. The role of cave lions in Neanderthal culture suggests a level of complexity and cultural development that was previously underestimated.

The Neanderthals, it seems, were not the simplistic beings we once thought them to be. They were skilled hunters, using weapons and tools, and they held symbolic significance, laying the groundwork for the more advanced cultures of Homo sapiens. This study adds a significant piece to the puzzle of our shared human history, showing that our Neanderthal cousins were not only survivors but also apex predators and cultural bearers in their own right.

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