The longest war ever fought by humans was not fought against other humans, but against another species -- Ursus spelaeus, the Cave Bear. For several hundred thousand years our stone age ancestors fought pitched and bloody battles with these denizens of the most precious commodity on earth -- habitable caves. Without these shelters homo sapiens would have had little chance of surviving the Ice Ages, the winter storms, and the myriad of hungry predators that lurked in the dark.
The cave bears, Ursus spelaeus and their cousins Ursus deningeri, were fierce, 20-foot long versions of Grizzly bears with huge teeth and razor sharp claws. Until Neanderthals, and the later Cro-magnons appeared on the scene in Europe and the Mid-east, these giant beasts infested every cave from sea level to altitudes near 10,000 feet. Though considered carnivores, they were actually mostly herbivorous. Cave bears subsisted largely on herbs, grass, berries, and honey, but also hunted small animals, most likely including humans. They lived to an age of about 20 years.
One by one, our ancestors destroyed these deadly creatures, driving them out of caves in a progressive northward movement, and then working their way up into the mountains. The last cave bear was slaughtered high up in the mountains of what is now Yugoslavia some 10,000 years ago.
Unlike modern grizzly bears and brown bears, the cave bear was not a loner, but lived in packs. Driving them from the caves surely involved the coordinated efforts of many skilled fighters. Evidence of their habitation is seen in countless caves where they haitually scraped their claws against the walls of the caves. This was apparently to create more room, but perhaps kept their claws sharp. Evidence of the violent deaths of cave bears is seen in the many bone piles, often notched with marks from spearpoints or arrowheads. Sometimes bits of broken spear tips are found embedded in the rib cages -- likely a prime target of any cave bear killer.
A chronological map can be drawn showing when human habitation of caves across Europe supplanted the cave bears. One can see a slow, grinding process of gaining new caves from the bears as one tribe outgrew their old habitats. The evidence suggests that stone age man did not simply use caves for occasional shelter, but inhabited them continuously, or at least seasonally, for millenia.
One cave in particular gives us tantalizing evidence of the cave bear wars. A stone structure had been covered and topped with the skull of a cave bear. The structure had evidence of numerous spears having been tossed at it, evidently for practice. No doubt our ancestors passed on their learned or acquired skills in cave bear fighting by spending time training younger fighters.
A less tenable interpretation of the cave bear structure is that it represented some complex religious ritual, although such rituals are, admittedly, peculiar only to modern man. Stone age man lived in a real world and had practical needs. Only modern man invents complex religious rituals.
The last battle with the cave bears, in the mountains of Yugoslavia, involved at least twenty bears, and perhaps at least twice as many men. No one know how many died in this final battle but certainly there were casualties. These men were heroes before the word was invented and they knew exactly what they were fighting for. The cave bears had been a scourge for as long as the memories of man could carry.
Cave bear skulls were found in caves by ancient man in caves from Europe to Asia. They were mis-interpreted as the skulls of dragons and gave rise to many local legends. On Middle Age maps the common phrase “Here be dragons” often referred to mountainous areas with caves where skulls had been found. In Austria the first attempt to reconstruct one of these dragons from a cave bear skull resulted in the famous sculpture shown imaged here. The original stone sculpture was made about 1400 AD.
Cave bears inhabited caves in Europe throughout the Pleistocene, from about 300,000 to 15,000 BC, disappearing by the end of the last ice age. Their population seems to have diminished upon the arrival of Cro-magnon in Europe. No doubt the Neanderthals had hunted cave bears, but the superior tools and skills of our direct ancestors would have given them the capability of hunting cave bears to extinction. The image at right shows a cave bear skull that was found with a hole where a spear had been driven through it.
Why would the cave bears be hunted to extinction and not the brown bears? Perhaps the sheer size of cave bears made them better game. The skin of a single cave bear could have made a tent all by itself.
Most cave bears seem to have died off well before the Weichselian glaciation, but survivors lasted in parts of Europe up to the end of the last ice age. Among the caves in the Caucasus, six or seven caves have been identified as having been inhabited by humans, after the cave bears were gone. Among the varieties of bones left over from meals were the remains of between two and six cave bears. The date of these remains may even be post-glacial.
In a study of fifteen Swiss caves that contained cave bear remains, only two could be associated with man, and these were clearly Magdalenian. In the German Alps also, cave bear remains are found as late as the late ice age and are associated with Magdalenian industry.
The extinction of the cave bear was a gradual process that spanned several thousand years, although the struggle for occupancy of the caves had probably been going on for much longer. Some sites have been identified that were alternately occupied by both humans and cave bears. The possibility exists that cave bears returning to hibernate may have killed humans to retake the caves, and that humans may have, in turn, killed cave bears, perhaps attacking during hibernation, to retake the caves.
Cave bears inhabitated caves in the mountains of Poland, with no evidence that humans supplanted them. High elevations, however, are not the ideal choice for human habitation, although some cave bears populations appear to have adapted to them. Cave bears were omnivores -- they would eat meat and vegetables. They had incisors for shredding flesh and molars adapted for grinding vegetable matter.
The precursor of Ursus spelaeus was called Ursus deningeri and this species appeared about 700,000 BC, during the Cromerian interglacial. Cave bears are estimated to have weighed near 1000 pounds, for males, while the females were much smaller. A typical cave bear skull is about 50 cm long as opposed to typical brown bear skulls of some 20-25 cm.
Alternate theories of cave bear extinction exist. There has been suggestion that cave bears were simply a genetic dead end, although such theories are hardly tenable for any species. An alternate suggestion is that the post-glacial climate became unsuitable, although the cave bears had survived several long interglacials.
The extinction of the cave bear seems more directly tied to the appearance of modern man as the replacement for Neanderthals in Europe. Furthermore, the cave bear was not the only species to disappear at the end of the last ice age. Mammoths, cave lions, wooly rhinos, steppe bison, giant deer, musk ox, and others all vanished. This phenomenon occurred worldwide and all the animals were either large game animals or dangerous predators. The image at right shows a cave bear footprint.
Both Cro-magnon and Neanderthal man seems to have actively sought out and destroyed cave bears. Some hunter groups also hunted brown bears, but these creatures seem to have been less fearful to most prehistoric populations. The image at left shows claw marks made by a cave bear in the walls of a cave.
Cave bear bones and skulls have been found in caves in Choukoutien (near Beijing, China), along with the bones of numerous game animals and large predators, and evidence of hearths and campfires over which the hunters cooked their meat. The photo at right of a cave bear skull from Poland was provided by Mark Target.
Cave bear remains have been found in Brundon, Sudbury, Suffolk, along with bones of other game animals and predators, and in association with the Levalloisian stone tool technology. The map at left shows most of the caves in Europe where cave bear remains have been found.
Cave bear remains have been found in many other caves that contained evidence of human habitation, including La Grotte de l'Hortus, Herault, France, Weimar-Ehringsdorf, Germany, Sirgenstein, Germany, Rouffignac, France, and Drachenloch, Switzerland.
In Drachenloch, meaning Dragon's Lair, a stone cist was found that housed a stack of cave bear skulls, while several others were found arranged side by side or stacked nearby. Were these trophy rooms for victorious cave bear hunters? Some have argued that this may have been a natural occurrence, however, this practice was found to occur in several other caves across Europe.
At Petershohle in Bavaria ten bear skulls had been arranged neatly on a ledge. At Wildenmannlisloch in Germany, 310 bear teeth had been amassed. At Les Furtins in France, six bear skulls had been placed in line on a stone slab. At Veterinica, Yugoslavia, cave bear bones had been placed in grotto-like enclosures. At Isturitz in the Pyrenees, bear bones were found aligned in caves. Similar sites have been found in Russia.
In Rouffingnac, whole colonies of cave bears inhabited deep parts of a large local cave complex. Here, over 1 kilometer from the entrance, were found hollowed-out nests where the cave bears had clawed away the walls.
Some theories presuppose that cave bears died out from a reduced food supply when the forests shrank at the end of the Ice Age, but for a herbivore that ate grass and herbs, this should have helped, not hurt their chances for survival. Other large animals that lived on grass, herbs and berries thrived, like horses, cattle, and deer. Their extinction was far more likely due to the fact that humans singled out cave bears for destruction, for the simple reason that they needed their caves. The last cave bear was killed about 10,000 years ago high in the mountains of Yugoslavia. The 100,000 year old war had ended, and from then on man would only kill other men for habitation, a practice that continues to this day.
Below are some photos of cave bear skulls and skeletons from the New York Museum of Natural History.
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