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Neanderthals hunting cave lions: Earliest evidence uncovered

Researchers have unearthed what appears to be the earliest evidence of Neanderthals hunting cave lions, dating back to 48,000 years ago in Germany. 

The findings, published by Springer Nature in the journal Scientific Reports, offer new clues about the relationship between ancient humans and these once-majestic creatures.

Primary evidence 

Puncture wounds on a cave lion’s ribcage hint at the possibility that Neanderthals might have killed it with a wooden spear. 

This revelation could place Neanderthals as the earliest hunters of these big cats, a discovery which was previously unknown.

Cave lion pelts 

The study also presents what could be the earliest evidence of Neanderthals using a cave lion pelt. 

This particular interaction has been a subject of speculation for a long time, especially given the prominence of cave lions in ancient human cultures. 

For instance, Homo sapiens prominently featured cave lions in their cave paintings, but direct interactions with Neanderthals remained elusive until now.

Focus of the study

The (almost complete) cave lion skeleton from Siegsdorf, Germany was originally excavated in 1985. Gabriele Russo and colleagues took on the task of analyzing the skeleton. 

Through their analysis, the experts concluded that the remains likely belonged to an old, medium-sized lion. 

Intriguing discovery 

Although previous assessments suggested that the animal might have been butchered post-mortem, a closer examination unveiled something more intriguing.

A partial puncture wound, specifically located on the inside of the lion’s third rib, presented the researchers with a unique clue. The wound seemed to be consistent with the impact mark of a wooden-tipped spear. 

The angle of the puncture suggests that the spear might have entered from the left side of the lion’s abdomen, hitting vital organs before lodging into the third rib on the right side. 

Skilled hunters 

Moreover, the nature of this wound bore similarities to those found on deer vertebrae, which were confirmed to be caused by Neanderthal spears. 

Drawing parallels, the authors propose that the Siegsdorf specimen stands as a testament to Neanderthals’ hunting expertise, specifically targeting cave lions.

Further analysis of cave lion specimens

The researchers also analyzed phalange and sesamoid bones from three cave lion specimens, excavated in 2019 from Einhornhöhle, Germany. 

These specimens, dating back to approximately 55 – 45,000 years ago, bore cutmarks that are typically found when an animal is skinned. 

The way these marks were positioned indicated a deliberate effort to ensure the lion’s claws remained intact within the fur. This could very well be the earliest instance of Neanderthals using lion pelts, possibly for cultural or ritualistic purposes.

These findings not only shed light on Neanderthal hunting strategies but also their cultural practices. The research presents a new understanding of the interactions between Neanderthals and cave lions during the Pleistocene epoch.

More about cave lions

As mentioned previously, cave lions, whose scientific name is Panthera spelaea, once prowled the vast landscapes of Europe and northern Asia during the Pleistocene era. Although they bear the name “cave lion,” this moniker arises not from their living habits but from the fact that we often find their remains in caves.

Physical appearance

These majestic creatures closely resembled the modern-day lion, but with some distinct differences. For starters, cave lions were slightly larger, with males weighing up to 830 pounds (about 375 kilograms) or more. Unlike the African lions, they didn’t possess a mane, making both males and females appear quite similar.


Their diet primarily consisted of large herbivores like bison, horses, and deer. Evidence from various cave paintings suggests that they might have hunted in groups, a behavior seen in today’s lions. These ancient artworks, especially those found in the Chauvet Cave in France, depict the cave lion with remarkable detail and respect, indicating the significance they held in the eyes of ancient human communities.


The circumstances surround their extinction, which occurred approximately 14,000 years ago, remains a mystery. While climate change and the resulting habitat alterations surely played a role, overhunting by humans could also have been a contributing factor.

Today, the legacy of the cave lion lives on through paleontological studies, ancient artworks, and the imaginations of those intrigued by the prehistoric world. As we continue to unearth more about these fascinating creatures, they serve as a powerful reminder of nature’s ever-evolving tapestry.

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