Neanderthals May Have Hunted Cave Lions

Researchers say well-preserved bones may be the earliest direct evidence of the hunting of large predators

Lion Skeleton With a Spear Replica
The cave lion skeleton from Siegsdorf in Germany with a replica of a wooden spear that may have been used to kill it. The authors theorize that Neanderthals may have stabbed the lion while it was resting or after it had been injured. Volker Minkus / NLD

Bones of cave lions from thousands of years ago indicate that Neanderthals may have been capable of hunting the large predators, and that our relatives may have used the hides for cultural purposes.

Researchers found evidence suggesting Neanderthals used a wooden spear to kill a cave lion found in Germany that dates to 48,000 years ago. And they unearthed paw bones that are at least 190,000 years old in another part of the country that suggested that Neanderthals had skinned the animal and may have kept the hide to use in some way. The results were published October 12 in Scientific Reports.

The findings are the “earliest direct evidence of a large predator being hunted and killed in human history,” Gabriele Russo, the first author of the study and a paleoanthropologist at the University of Tübingen in Germany, tells Newsweek’s Aristos Georgiou.

“This discovery helps to reshape our understanding of other human species’ capabilities and challenges preconceived notions about Neanderthals,” Russo tells the New York Times Franz Lidz.

Neanderthals, the closest extinct human relative, split off from a common ancestor of humans between 300,000 and 700,000 years ago, according to the National Museum of Natural History. They lived across Europe and Asia and went extinct around 40,000 years ago.

At the end of the 20th century, scientists considered Neanderthals to be much less sophisticated than their human relatives, but recent findings suggest otherwise, writes the New York Times. They successfully hunted bears and other carnivores and not only relied on animal meat for food, but also may have engraved bones and used bird feathers and animal skulls for symbolic practices, according to the new study. They also may have made art and hunted in groups.

The new paper points to their hunting prowess. The researchers took another look at the skeletal remains of a medium-sized, older male cave lion that had been found at Siegsdorf, in Germany. Cave lions lived during the last Ice Age in northern Eurasia and North America.

The lions’ bones suggested the animal had been trampled and gnawed on by carnivores. It also had lesions indicating it had been hunted, including a partial puncture of a bone wall, and butchery marks. Further analysis suggested someone used a wooden spear to stab the lion through the abdomen.

The hunters were likely Neanderthals since modern humans hadn’t spread to Europe until after 48,000 years ago, per New Scientist’s Michael Marshall. They could have attacked the animal while it was resting, or perhaps after it had become injured in some other way, the authors theorize.

The researchers also uncovered cave lion paw bones, including two digit bones, from a cave site in the Harz Mountains. Cut marks on the bone indicate the lion may have been skinned “in such a way that the claws were left in the paw of the animal,” Russo tells New Scientist. The location of the bones and how they were cut also suggest that they were still attached to the skin when they were brought into the cave. This could mean that Neanderthals used the skin for some purpose, such as for keeping warm or as a display.

Together, the findings add another dimension to the complexity of Neanderthal behavior, the study authors write.

The paper is a “another nail in the coffin” of the idea that humans didn’t become modern until recently, João Zilhão, a paleoanthropologist at the University of Lisbon in Portugal, tells the New York Times.

“The notion that Neanderthals interacted with cave lions holds deep significance,” Russo tells Gizmodo’s Isaac Schultz via email. “It reveals that Neanderthals were actively engaged with their environment, which included encounters with formidable creatures like lions. These interactions encompassed not only the cultural use of lion body parts but also the ability to hunt them.”

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