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2019-11-07 12:57:35   •   ID: 2133

Pleistocene Human- Cave-bear Interactions

Figure 1
This is zoomorph, 5 cm long, figurine representing a bear in upright position. It is a rare finding from the Tarya "Neolithic" (4,0-2,5 k.a. BP) of the Kamchatka Peninsula made from now patinated Obsidian.

A bear standing on its hind legs is normally not aggressive but highly attentive. It is just standing upright to survey the surroundings and to catch airborne scent, but always ready to become agressive if it feels threatened.

"The bear is a large and dangerous carnivore. However, fear alone does not account for the rich and varied traditions linking bears and humans. Not infrequently, people have felt a kind of kinship with bears, for humans and bears share many characteristics.

They live in the same regions and eat the same fish, roots, and berries. Unlike other animals, bears can stand on their hind legs as humans do and they can use their fore paws as humans use their hands.

A bear’s skinned body looks human, and several bear bones resemble human bones, which lends credence to the view that the animal is really a man in disguise
" (Germonpré 2007).

According to Joachim Hahn, who worked on similar, but much more older Pleistocene animal figurines, they could have been created as a Symbol of physical power and agression- maybe as a humans "Alter Ego".

The motive of a bear, shown as a mighty beast in a human–like upright two legged position, is known since the Paleolithic.

The most important item in this context is an 5,5 cm long erect anthropomorphic Bear from the Aurignacian layers of the Geissenklösterle Cave in the Swabian Alb which was reconstructed from 11 pieces of ivory.

Its head is raised and the snout slightly opened, a quite realistic depiction, compared with the stylized Kamtschatka counterparts: https://nat.museum-digital.de/singleimage.php?resourcenr=377354 .

At Cap Blanc (Dordogne) a contour of a attentive bear (3,3 cm long) was created of flint stone, conceptionally near the zoomorph statuette, shown in this post.

Figure 2
The Tarya Complex was concentrated in Central and Southern Kamchatka. Subsidence was based on Hunting and Fishing. While hunting is evidenced by Projectiles, fishing may be indicated by the abundance of sink-pebbles.

People lived in small sedentary housholds. Ceramics are extremely rare and food was mainly cooked in wooden or birch-bark vessels.

The Tarya lithic tools, some are shown in Figure 5, are mostly bifacial and made from Obsidian

In central Kamchatka the Microblade industry is still very present, but had already disappeared from Southern parts of the Peninsula. Different ground adzes and oil lamps are present for the first time in the Kamchatka Archaeological record.

The Tarya Complex is characterized by retouched stone figurines, first noted by Zamiatnin in 1948. The majority of them were found in the cultural level of the Tar’ia type site. They are made from small blades of obsidian reworked by pressure retouch as highly stylized figurines often with a zoomorphic character.

Figure 3
The Kamchatka brown bear (Ursus arctos beringianus) is a subspecies of the brown bear, native to Circumpolar regions, among them to the Kamchatka Peninsula.

According to the bear population assessment, there are more 20000 species on the peninsula. This is 5% of the bear population on the planet or 15% of all bears in Russia. Most of the bears inhabit the area of Lake Kuril.

According to aviation assessment, up to one thousand bears gather each year in this area during a spectacular salmon spawning.

The literature about the relationship between man and bear is extensive. In the Archaeological context, the Pleistocene cave bear (Ursus spelaeus), which represents one of the most frequently found paleontological remains from the Pleistocene in Europe is most important.

The cave bear was always confined to Europe and was contemporary with the brown bear, Ursus arctos, which still exists today and plays a major role in early Ethnological reports, but also in old and modern Archaeological Myths and in the popular Folklore of the Circumpolar countries.

"Relationships between the cave bear and the two lineages of brown bears defined in Europe, as well as the origins of the two species, remain controversial, mainly due to the wide morphological diversity of the fossil remains, which makes interpretation difficult (Loreille et al. 2001). This complicated issue will not be further discussed in this post.

The cave bear's range stretched across Europe; from Spain and Great Britain in the west, Italy, parts of Germany, Poland, the Balkans, Romania and parts of Russia, including the Caucasus; and northern Iran.

Figure 4
The largest numbers of cave bear remains have been found in Austria, Switzerland, northern Italy, northern Spain, southern France, and Romania, roughly corresponding with the Pyrenees, Alps, and Carpathians.

The huge number of bones found in southern, central and eastern Europe has led some scientists to think Europe may have once had literally herds of cave bears.

Others, however, point out that, though some caves have thousands of bones, they were accumulated over a period of 100k.a. or more, thus requiring only two deaths in a cave per year to account for the large numbers.

The cave bear inhabited low mountainous areas, especially in regions rich in limestone caves. They seem to have avoided open plains, preferring forested or forest-edged terrains.

Even the behaviour of certain family groups and their preferences for specific caves was predictable:

Figure 5
Genetic studies showed that: "Late Pleistocene cave bears and middle Holocene brown bears that each inhabited multiple geographically proximate caves in northern Spain.

In cave bears, we find that, although most caves were occupied simultaneously, each cave almost exclusively contains a unique lineage of closely related haplotypes.

This remarkable pattern suggests extreme fidelity to their birth site in cave bears, best described as homing behaviour, and that cave bears formed stable maternal social groups at least for hibernation.

In contrast, brown bears do not show any strong association of mitochondrial lineage and cave, suggesting that these two closely related species differed in aspects of their behaviour and sociality
" (González Fortes et al. 2016).

The interaction between humans and Pleistocene Bears will be discussed around three important issues:

  • Did Humans successfully hunt Pleistocene Cave Bears in Europe?


  • Was there a Pleistocene "Bear Cult"?


  • Why did the Cave Bear dissapear around the Late Glacial Maximum from Europe?


Figure 6
Figure 6 shows an illustration of a "Bear Hunt" by Zdeněk Michael František Burian (1905-1981), a Czech painter and book illustrator whose work played around the mid 20th century a central role in the development of paleontological reconstruction.

Burian depicts a Hunting scenario between three Anatomical Modern Humans and an erect aggressive Bear in an interglacial / interstadial landscape during Summer or Autumn.

The scenario directly contradicts the Archaeological and Ethnographic record, where Cave Bears were killed in caves and not in the free landscape during hibernation in the Winter and not during Summer (Pacher 2000, 2002).

Indeed there are rare but clear indications, that Humans directly attacked bears in Caves: Münzel described Cave Bear remains from several Upper Paleolithic pre LGM Ach- Valley sites. In the Geissenklösterle cut marks on some skull fragments of cave bear were recognized.

Figure 7
At Hohle Fels human modifications on cave bear bones were even more frequent. A cave vertebra with an embedded fragment of a flint was recovered in the year 2000 in an early Gravettian layer at Hohle Fels (Münzel 2004).

Similar hunting injuries were found at Bear bones at Potočka Zijalka in Slovenia, wher Aurignacian Hunters visied the large Cave and left behind a collection of more than 130 Mladec Points: see here: 1318 .

An Engraving on schist of two humans attacking a bear is shown in Figure 7 (Courteously by Don Hitchcock). It was found early between 1912-1927 at the grotte du Chien à Péchialet, at Groléjac, Dordogne- about other Abris at Groléjac see: 1011 .

Although assigned to a Gravettian by Breuil, who found in 1927 some Noailles burins at the already heavily disturbed site, the style of the figures is close to a similar plaque from Limeuil, found in a late Magdalenian layer.

Note that this scene resembles Burian's vision of a Bear Hunt and may have inspired him for his composition.

The Magdalenian of S/W-France is rich in depictions of the bear, made on different materials and by different techniques:

Engravings on bone, like the famous, partial destroyed rondel from Mas-d'Azil, showing a bear paw combined with a man exhibiting an erected penis- another example is the combination of a bear en face with several stylized humans (a hunt?) on an animal long bone from La Vache (Ariege);

Scuptures in bone and stone: remember the sitting bear from Laugerie-Basse today exposed in the MAN;

Last but not least the bear as a common motive of several Contour découpés...

During the Pavlovian (Dolni Vestonice, Pavlov) we know several bear statuettes made of burnt clay- maybe produced by children and possible profane toys without ritual connotations.

Magdalenian parietal art of the Portel, Combarelles, Massat and the Trois-Frères Grottos, shows bears with signs of battle and wounds.

Figure 8
After the end of the first World War, the Swiss paleontologist Emil Bächler excavated the Drachenloch cave in eastern Switzerland, and found some intriguing arrangements of Cave Bear Bones together with Mousterian tools.

He described, that Skull and leg bones had been arranged in “stone boxes”. He subsequently excavated other caves where he discovered burnt cave bear remains, broken bear bones, and skulls on or under rock slabs or in niches.

Bächler’s findings, and similar discoveries in Swiss, Austria and Slovenia, have given rise to a widespread belief in the popular literature of a Neanderthal «cave bear cult».

Figure 8 shows Burians vision of this scientific myth, still popular during the 1950ies.

With the advances in taphonomic research the "Bear Cult Theory" was refuted. It was shown that the enigmatic assortments of bear skulls and long bones in the caves were not due to human activities, but to the flowing water or other transport mediums.

Until now, there is no convincing evidence for a Paleolithic bear cult.

To use of Ethnographic records and other sources, dating back to 1000 years at best, for the construction a "Bear Cult" remain nothing more than nice speculations- especially if the "Shamans" are intertwined with this narrative-see 1301 . Ethnographic literature can be found in the external links.

Anyhow some non-disputable facts, which point to a special releationship of Homo Sapiens and Cave Bear remain:

  • "Red ochre traces on several fossil bear remains in Belgian caves were shown to have been applied purposely by prehistoric people and were not the result of contamination with spilt ochre or ochre containing sediment". (Germonpré 2007)


  • At Chauvet Cave- Excellent parietal art maybe from the Aurignacian or Gravettian- which stylistically would fit better to the Gravettian style- at 32-28 k.a. calBP. In the in the "Recess of the Bears" three monochrome red Bears are assembled in a panel and 12 other monochrome (red or black) depictions of a bear detected together with the presence of 55 ancient bear skulls in the Cave, including one carefully placed isolated Bear scull on a fallen rock- undoubtedly an intentional gesture of the people who entered the cave before the LGM.


  • A very special finding from the Middle to Late Magdalenian was discovered in 1923 by the speleologist Norbert Casteret deep in the cave of Montespan (Haute-Garonne, France).

    Here the loosely modelled, near-life size, headless clay model of a bear was found in the Galerie Casteret, 300 m deep in the Cave in the context of stylistically Magdalenian engravings and disturbed further clay models.

    It is said that between his front paws lay the skull of a real bear, maybe once been attached to the figure itself. Unfortunately it got lost or stolen before an independent scientific committee visited the site and we have no Photodocumentation of the site, that could proof its existence.

    In the sculpture 41 circular holes are visible, which are interpreted as punctures of spears or arrows. It is possible that this figure is a ritual object in connection with a hunting ceremony. But this interpretation may be misleading and another modern myth.


Why did the Cave Bear disappear from the Archeological record in Europe around the LGM? As always a combination of climatic events and hunting by Humans is discussed.

The latest paper about this topic took into account Paleogenetic data and Bayesian phylogenetic analysis and assumed a constant decline of the female Cave Bear population after 40 k.a. calBP (Gretzinger et al. 2019).

The authors stated that: "Our calculated effective female population sizes suggest a drastic cave bear population decline starting around 40,000 years ago at the onset of the Aurignacian, coinciding with the spread of anatomically modern humans in Europe.

While climatic fluctuations during MIS 3 may significantly decreased the population, a new human player with more effective hunting techniques could further decimated the species:

our study supports a potential significant human role in the general extinction and local extirpation of the European cave bear and illuminates the fate of this megafauna species".

But we should remember, that a coincidence is never a proof of causality....

Surf the Blog: 1198 , and here: 1318

Suggested Reading:

L'ours dans l'art préhistorique. MAN 2014 (at your local bookstore); see also:

https://www.grandpalais.fr/fr/article/lours-dans-lart-prehistorique . with 3-D Animated Objects from French Sites!

Burian Z: Menschen der Vorzeit, Artia, 1961

Andre Leroi-Gourhan: Die Religionen der Vorgeschichte, Surkamp 1981

Waers et al.: Bärenkult und Schamanenzauber Rituale früher Jäger, Archäologisches Museum Frankfurt 2015: you can read it as a free pdf in the external link section!

A. Russia: Visiter Cap Blanc, 1999; Edition Sud Oest