Neandertals hunted cave lions at least 48,000 years ago

A new study reports the first direct evidence of the hominids slaying the big cats

A partial skeleton of a cave lion lays on a dark surface. A spear replica lies between the skull and vertebrae.

A wound on this cave lion skeleton indicates that Neandertals killed the big cat with a wooden spear, represented here by a replica of the weapon, around 48,000 years ago.

Volker Minkus, ©NLD

Roughly 48,000 years ago, Neandertals killed a cave lion by thrusting a wooden spear into its abdomen, lion remains from Germany suggest.

The discovery represents the first direct evidence of Neandertals hunting cave lions, and the oldest evidence of any hominid slaying a large predator, researchers say. But such behavior probably began much earlier among Neandertals, zooarchaeologist Gabriele Russo and colleagues report October 12 in Scientific Reports.

The researchers also examined three cave lion paw bones from another German site that date to at least roughly 190,000 years ago. These bones, discovered in 2019, were originally part of a pelt that Neandertals skinned off a freshly killed cave lion (Panthera spelaea), the researchers suspect. The bones lay close together and included one with marks typically made during skinning of animal hides. No evidence indicates that the paw bones were used as pendants or as parts of clothing.

“A lion pelt with attached claws could have embodied many meanings for Neandertals and been worn as a special piece of clothing for warmth, significant occasions or simply displayed,” says Russo, of the University of Tübingen in Germany.

A puncture wound on a rib from the cave lion’s skeleton, unearthed in 1985, resembles impact marks made by wooden spears, the researchers say. Based on the wound’s angle, hunters approached the lion, probably an old male, from behind and stabbed it in the lower abdomen while it lay on its right side. Stone tool marks on other skeletal parts indicate that hunters butchered the animal.

Previous finds have suggested that Neandertals used wooden spears to hunt wild horses 300,000 to 400,000 years ago, and to hunt deer and possibly elephants roughly 125,000 years ago (SN: 3/1/97; SN: 3/29/23).

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.

More Stories from Science News on Archaeology