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Bone detail
Scar marks on extinct cave lion bones (pictured) suggest that early humans hunted and ate the predator.

Photograph courtesy Blasco et al

Bones

Cave lion bones found recently in Spain. Photograph courtesy Blasco et al.

Brian Handwerk

for National Geographic News

Published June 14, 2010

Knife-scarred bones found in a prehistoric cave site show that cave lion was on the menu for Europe's early humans, according to a new study.

The cut marks show that the animals were gutted, just like the many deer, horses, bison, and other common prey animals found at the site, according to study leader Ruth Blasco of Universitat Rovira i Virgili in Tarragona, Spain.

The gutted remains also show that the early humans might have had first crack at the corpse by killing it themselves, Blasco said. If other animals had killed the lion, she said, the tasty viscera would have been long gone by the time the early humans arrived.

It's also possible early humans or animals came across the lion after it died of natural causes, experts say.

(See "Killer Cats Hunted Human Ancestors" [2002].)

The hunters belonged to the species of Neanderthal ancestor called Homo heidelbergensis, or Heidelberg Man, which has also been found at the study site in Sierra de Atapuerca, Spain.

Previous studies showed that wooden-spear and stone-tool-wielding H. heidelbergensis was the first known big game hunter.

Now, the new evidence may also mean that H. heidelbergensis was a top predator of its day, and could hunt and even kill the deadly cave lion, Blasco said.

Feline Feast for Early Humans

Blasco and colleagues unearthed 17 bones of the extinct cave lion Panthera leo fossilis, which was a bit bigger than today's African lion.

(Related: "Ancient Lion With 'Bolt Cutter' Jaws: Best Killer Ever?")

The bones were found at the Gran Dolina site, which houses hundreds of fossils in 300,000- to 350,000-year-old rock layers from Europe's Middle Pleistocene period. (See a prehistoric time line.)

Cut marks on the lion bones allowed the team to reconstruct how the Neanderthal ancestors skinned and defleshed the lion, as well as broke its bones to remove marrow.

But bones alone can’t tell the researchers why H. heidelbergensis would have tangled with such a dangerous creature, Blasco pointed out. Clues from other societies may help answer that.

“In the case of [East Africa’s] Maasai, the hunting of lions is related to initiation rites in which, after killing the predator, the initiated obtains the group’s respect,” said Blasco, whose study appears in August in the Journal of Archaeological Science.

It's also possible that early humans killed the lion out of self-defense. For instance the two predator species may have run into each other, perhaps in confrontation over a prey animal, she noted.

University of Arizona zooarchaeolgist Mary Stiner added that there's evidence of Middle and Upper Pleistocene peoples hunting large carnivores in small numbers.

“That people also dined on carnivore flesh from time to time is true and entirely consistent with the need not to waste,” said Stiner, who was not involved in the research.

Lion Kill a Rarity

But University of Connecticut anthropologist Daniel Adler said that there's no clear evidence showing how H. heidelbergensis encountered the cave lion at the Spanish site.

That's because too little of the lion's skeleton remains to conclude that other carnivores didn't kill it first. For instance, some of the bones bear teeth marks from nonhuman carnivores. The study authors believe the marks were made by small scavengers, such as foxes, that picked at the carcass after H. heidelbergensis had finished.

But Adler, who was not involved in the research, said the animal tooth marks are possible evidence that hominins didn't take down the lion.

What's more, "even if the [early humans] at Gran Dolina hunted this cave lion, no other examples exist elsewhere in Eurasia, thus underlining the extreme rarity of such behavior," he said.

Study leader Blasco agreed that such lion kills were unusual, as evidenced by the far more numerous remains of more traditional—and less risky—prey.

Adler also suspects the animal must have been sick or injured for H. heidelbergensis to target it as prey.

"It is simply too risky an undertaking to have engaged a healthy adult cave lion," he said, adding that the promise of meat or prestige would have paled with the high risk of death.

It’s also possible that the hominins were simply the first to find a lion that had died of natural causes.

"Lions die of all kinds of causes, and one can't rule out early access scavenging of a natural death," said Stony Brook University paleoanthropologist John Shea, who wasn’t involved in the study.

But because Blasco and her team found no evidence of illness or injury on the existing bones, the scientists suggest that it’s most likely the early humans got to the lion first by hunting and killing the beast.

Early Humans Were Top of the Food Chain?

Overall, Blasco believes the scarred lion bones may show that H. heidelbergensis was at least capable of successfully taking down even the most formidable predator.

"Lions are situated in a very high position within the food chain, and obtaining them is dangerous and fraught with risk," she said.

The early humans "could be located in a similar position in the food chain, or even higher up than these large carnivores."

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