Were Early Humans and Cave Bears Trading Spaces?

Sara Goudarzi
for National Geographic News
March 23, 2006

Around 32,000 years ago, caves were prime real estate.

For early humans, the biggest competitors for such prehistoric housing may have been an extinct species of bear larger than the grizzly that lived in Europe during the last glacial period.

Scientists know that Neandertals and cave bears (Ursus spelaeus) once used the same caves in southeastern France during the ice age (1.6 million to 10,000 years ago).

The question has been whether early humans and bears were challenging one another for food and shelter.

Now a new study of ancient bear bones and cave paintings shows that bears and Neandertals were not competing for caves, but instead were trading off with perhaps centuries-long gaps in between.

The French-led research is detailed in the current issue of the Journal of Human Evolution.

Bear Bones

The new study is based on findings from Chauvet Cave, a site just north of the town of Nîmes in France (see map) that was sealed by the collapse of its entrance almost 20,000 years ago.

Since the cave's discovery in 1994, researchers have been studying the wealth of prehistoric artifacts, such as wall paintings and animal bones, that had been lying untouched for thousands of years.

"This site is all the more exceptional, since the wall paintings are dated to 32,000 years [ago] … which is the oldest evidence for wall painting in the world," said Herve' Bocherens, a researcher at the Institut des Sciences de l'Evolution in France.

(Read more about the discovery of the caves and watch video interviews with the research team leader.)

Using the bones of cave bears found on the floor of Chauvet Cave, Bocherens and his team were able to determine what these animals ate.

Continued on Next Page >>


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