Predator or prey? Paleolithic people may have hunted Eurasian cave lions for their pelts

Predator or prey? Paleolithic people may have hunted Eurasian cave lions for their pelts

New evidence suggests that Upper Paleolithic humans hunted massive cave lions in order to obtain their pelts.

If you have a healthy respect for the modern lion, you’ll be relieved to hear that its larger cousin, the Eurasian cave lion – one of the biggest lion species ever to have lived – went extinct around 14,000 years ago. You’d also expect that the Upper Paleolithic humans around at the same time would have kept well clear of these powerful predators. But a recent study suggests that some intrepid Upper Paleolithic humans may in fact have hunted cave lions for their skins.

Marián Cueto and colleagues examined nine fossilized cave lion toe bones discovered at La Garma, an Upper Paleolithic cave site in northern Spain. The video shows various parts of the dramatic cave landscape and includes shots of the lion toe bones in situ.

Most of the bones showed signs of having been modified by humans using stone tools. Their specialized technique appeared similar to that used by modern hunters when skinning prey to keep the claws attached to the fur. The authors suggest that the toe bones they analyzed may therefore have formed part of a single lion pelt, which possibly lay on the floor of the occupied cave. This would correspond with the original locations of the toe bones, as shown in the video.

This surprising find suggests that Upper Paleolithic humans might have been successful in exploiting cave lions for their pelts, and the authors speculate that human hunting of cave lions might have contributed to cave lion extinction.


Research Article: Cueto M, Camarós E, Castaños P, Ontañón R, Arias P (2016) Under the Skin of a Lion: Unique Evidence of Upper Paleolithic Exploitation and Use of Cave Lion (Panthera spelaea) from the Lower Gallery of La Garma (Spain). PLoS ONE 11(10): e0163591. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0163591

Image Credit: Zaginiony Świat, Wikimedia Commons

Video Credit: Cueto et al., 2016


Beth works at PLOS as Journal Media Manager. She read Natural Sciences, specializing in Pathology, at the University of Cambridge before joining PLOS in 2013. She feels fortunate to be able to read and write about the exciting new research published by PLOS.

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