Did Humans Stab This Ice Age Cave Bear Through the Skull?

Did Humans Stab This Ice Age Cave Bear Through the Skull?
The recently discovered cave bear skull. (Photo: UrFU / Elizaveta Veretennikova)

Cave bears were hulking beasts you wouldn’t want to run into in the dark (even if they were mostly vegetarians). But it seems a human got the better of one of these now-extinct ursids, according to an assessment made by Russian paleontologists last month.

The team revealed cave bear remains found in the Imanay Cave in the Southern Ural mountains. The cave is chock full of thousands of bone fragments, including remains of red foxes, mammoths, cave lions, marmots, woolly rhinos, and steppe bison. Among the bones was the skull of a small cave bear, Ursus rossicus. Based on a narrow, oblong hole found in the animal’s skull, the team determined the ancient bear was likely killed by a human, as discussed in a paper describing the find recently published in Vestnik Archeologii, Anthropologii I Ethnographii.

“The hole in the skull could be either natural or artificial,” said Dmitry Gimranov, senior researcher at the Ural Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences and the Ural Federal University, in a university press release. “In the first case, for example, a stone could fall on the bear’s head, or water dripped onto the skull during thousands of years. But this is highly unlikely. Most likely the animal was killed by ancient people.”

Gimranov and his colleagues dated the bear skull to about 35,000 years old, and, based on growth layers in the animal’s teeth, deduced that it was about 10 years old when it died. The skull was found near evidence of Pleistocene human habitation and comes after three years of excavations in the cave, which sits in Bashkiria National Park. Paleontologists have known that Pleistocene humans relied on large mammals for food, including woolly mammoths, and some cave bear bones have shown evidence of meat removal. But this is the first direct evidence of a bear being hunted, according to the team.

It’s not the first time an Ice Age cold case has turned up. In 2019, a saber-toothed cat cranium with a hole in skullcap led researchers to believe the big cats may have fought amongst their own species. Though not a murder mystery, last summer a cave bear came out of the Siberian permafrost so well preserved that its toothy grin could be seen on a head still covered in muscle tissue and fur.

No arrowhead or spearpoint was found in the recently excavated bear skull, but the researchers determined that the hole was more likely made by a human weapon than by natural deterioration. Layers of the cave that included human-made materials contained a sharp flint biface, for example, which could have been used to stab the animal. “A hole in the skull could have been made after the death of the bear as a ritual practice,” Gimranov said, adding that evidence of bear hunting from this period is “extremely rare.”

Perhaps most intriguingly, this dead bear showed no evidence of hack marks or other traces that would suggest its meat had been removed for consumption. So why poke a hole in it? As Gimranov noted, it may have been a ritual stabbing. Maybe humans walked into the cave after a long day out on the ice and stumbled upon a hibernating bear. While the case might never be solved, it’s a fascinating glimpse into another epoch.