Stone Age-cartoon enthusiasts will recall that Fred Flintstone polished off racks of brontosaurus ribs and that Wilma Flintstone swanned around in a Siberian mastodon fur coat. As it turns out, the Neanderthals of, say, 46,000 B.C. may have had similar dining habits and tastes in daywear. An academic paper published on Thursday in the journal Scientific Reports proposes that our long-extinct ancestors not only were the first humans to kill and butcher large predators, but that they also used the hides for cultural purposes and perhaps even dressed in them.
Researchers analyzed cut marks and puncture wounds on the remains of two Eurasian cave lions unearthed 34 years apart in present-day Germany. One set of bones, an almost intact skeleton found near Siegsdorf at the foot of the Bavarian Alps in 1985, is estimated to be about 48,000 years old; the other assemblage, two toe bones and one tiny paw bone that had been embedded in a pelt that later disintegrated, was discovered in 2019 deep within Einhornhöhle, or Unicorn Cave, in the Harz Mountains and dates to approximately 190,000 years ago. Both lions lived during an era when Neanderthals were the only humans that occupied Europe; the first Homo sapiens did not arrive on the continent until roughly 42,000 years ago.
The new study addresses a foundational question in zooarchaeology: Were early hominids the hunters or the hunted? “The Siegsdorf findings provide the earliest concrete evidence of humans hunting down the formidable lion, the ultimate hunter of the animal kingdom,” said Gabriele Russo, a doctoral candidate in zooarchaeology at the University of Tübingen and the first author of the paper. “This discovery helps to reshape our understanding of other human species’ capabilities and challenges preconceived notions about Neanderthals.”
As recently as the 1990s, Neanderthals were judged by scholars to be rock-brained scavengers too helpless to hunt on their own. Based partly on the absence of upper limb bones dug up at Neanderthal campsites, the consensus was that they eked by on the less meaty leftovers of other carnivores. But a reappraisal of the evidence showed that the bones that were supposedly missing had been shattered by the group to get at the marrow.
Neanderthals are now thought to have been more sophisticated and multitalented than imagined. Evidence is mounting that they used a complex language and even, considering the ritual interment of their dead, some form of spirituality. They made sticky pitch to secure their spear points by heating birch bark; stalked bison, wild cattle and straight-tusked elephants, and ambushed hibernating cave bears as the animals woke from their annual slumber.
Until now, no study had demonstrated that Neanderthals intentionally hunted large beasts of prey, much less cave lions, apex predators that ranged widely across northern Eurasia and Alaska from 370,000 B.C. to 10,000 B.C. “We have very early indirect evidence of hunting of non-predators, although there is some debate about what constitutes hunting and when,” said Annemieke Milks, an archaeologist at the University of Reading who collaborated on the paper. “We see evidence that humans were hunting for many hundreds of thousands of years before this, but it’s quite a different type of challenge to hunt dangerous animals.”
The cave lion, which was as much as 20 percent larger than lions of today, gained its name not because it lingered in caves but because many intact skeletons have been found in the dens of largely herbivorous cave bears, on which the lions presumably feasted.
The remains of the Siegsdorf cave lion repose in a glass case at the town’s Natural History and Mammoth Museum. In the fall of 2021, Mr. Russo examined the skeleton bone by bone. The presence of cut marks across two ribs, some vertebrae and the left femur had led archaeologists to believe that Neanderthals butchered the big cat after it died. Mr. Russo noticed a deep, previously undocumented gash on the underside of a rib; the gash resembled projectile impact marks that wooden-tipped Neanderthal spears had left on ancient deer vertebrae. The wound channel was angled, which led him to suspect that a spear had entered the left side of the lion’s abdomen and passed through vital organs before striking the rib.
The injury was a hunting lesion, he thought.
Based on this finding, Mr. Russo persuaded the museum director to loan out the lion’s remains to the State Service for Cultural Heritage Lower Saxony in Hannover for closer inspection. Thomas Terberger, an archaeologist and head of research at the heritage office, had been a supervisor on Mr. Russo’s master’s thesis.
Dr. Terberger enlisted Dr. Milks, a specialist in early hunting weapons. Using a combination of digital 3-D microscopy and micro-CT scanning, Dr. Milks and Mr. Russo created a ballistic reconstruction. Forensics revealed that the spear had been thrust rather than thrown, and that the rib wound was likely a fatal blow struck while the lion was lying on the ground.
The specimen was an elderly male, and, given modern lion behavior, possibly a solitary rogue that had been cast out of its pride. “An old lone lion may have posed a threat to the Neanderthals or competed for their prey,” Mr. Russo said. “Perhaps the Neanderthals saw an opportunity for an easier kill or viewed the lion as a means to prove themselves and decided to hunt it.”
Mr. Russo sketched out two hunt scenarios. In one, the lion was gored by javelins, which softened him up for the kill. “Once the predator was exhausted on the ground, a final stab was delivered to ensure its death,” Mr. Russo said.
The second narrative involved Neanderthals waylaying and impaling the creature in its sleep. “Regardless of the hunting method, the lion was subsequently butchered with care, eviscerated and left at the site without breaking the bones,” Mr. Russo said.
The researchers also studied cave lion bones that turned up in Einhornhöhle, the Unicorn Cave in central Germany, which in antiquity seems to have served as a hide-out for Neanderthals and, at other times, an array of animal species. The name Unicorn Cave was bestowed by medieval treasure hunters, who claimed that fossilized cave bear bones buried in the dark passages belonged to unicorns. The treasure hunters ground the bones into powder, which was sold as medicine.
The cut marks on the lion bones were consistent with those generated when an animal is skinned, the new study concluded. The claws and modified bones were preserved in the missing pelt and were found by Mr. Russo about 100 feet from the entrance to the cave. He and Dr. Terberger speculated that the hide was a “cultural object” worn for rituals, kept as a hunting trophy or used to educate young Neanderthals about their perilous feline neighbors.
“Ecologically speaking, these lions were the equals of Neanderthals, if not more imposing hunters,” Mr. Russo said. “To possess, touch and display part of such an extraordinary animal must have been a privilege. This is a feeling that I’m sure we share with Neanderthals.”
João Zilhão, a paleoanthropologist at the University of Lisbon who was not involved in the study, praised the findings for adding to the body of evidence that Neanderthals were much like us. He described the paper as “another nail in the coffin” of the scholarly conceit that humans did not become anatomically, behaviorally and cognitively “modern” until quite recently.
“Call them what you want,” Dr. Zilhão said. “Archaics, Homo erectus, Home heidelbergensis, Neanderthals, whatever — humans have been human for hundreds of thousands of years. The most important difference between the recent and the remote Paleolithic is that, the more distant from us, the more difficult it is for us to see it.”
In this, he argued, archaeologists of the Paleolithic have a lot in common with contemporary astronomers who are attempting to map out the galaxy. “Therein lies the significance of snippets of information such as this cave lion report,” Dr. Zilhão said. “They reveal that something not all that different from what we can see with our eyes does exist out there, even if we can only manage to get glimpses of it every now and then.”