Case Closed: 35,000-year-old Murder of a Bear Finally Solved

Paleontologists found the pierced skull of a cave bear in a Siberian cave. It could have been caused naturally – or may have been made for ritual purposes

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The perforated cave bear skull found in Siberia.
The perforated cave bear skull found in Siberia.Credit: UrFU / Elizaveta Veretennikova

About 35,000 years ago, a bear died in a cave in Siberia. It was a small cave bear – also known as the Russian cave bear, even though the first specimen was found in Britain. The problem was that the small cave bear wasn’t alone in the cave. Apparently a human was there and speared the bear in the head, possibly while it was in a hibernation stupor, scientists suspect.

The bear was a full adult, aged about 9 to 10 years, report Dmitry Gimranov of the Ural Federal University and colleagues in Vestnik Archeologii, Antropologii i Etnografii, a publication of the Siberian branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences.

The evidence for this very cold case of ursine assassination is a hole in its skull, and the researchers say outright that it could have been due to natural causes. For example, maybe a rock fell on the unfortunate bear’s head. It could even have been created by water dripping onto the bone over 35,000 years.

“But this is highly unlikely. Most likely the animal was killed by ancient people,” Gimranov stated.

The small cave bear was distinct from the large cave bear and a number of local types, even dwarf ones. Cave bears liked to live in caves, going by the paleontological evidence, hence their name.

Generally, cave bears’ range encompassed most of Eurasia, including the Russian Caucasus and the Urals, and possibly even North Africa. It seems they went extinct as the last Ice Age reached its peak in the Late Glacial Maximum, around 25,000 years ago. And where there were cave bears in caves, there were humans too.

We know humans hunted mega-fauna – large animals – in general, including to the point of their extinction, but paleontologists aren’t clear why the cave bear disappeared. Last year, a team analyzing mitochondrial DNA sequences from fossil cave bears compared them with modern brown bears, their closest relative. They concluded that the cave bear’s decline (as attested by a decline in genetic diversity) began 50,000 years ago and was caused more by human pressure than by climate change – because the climate wasn’t changing 50,000 years ago

By 35,000 years ago, when this cave bear met its maker, their population was in substantial decline in central Europe. By this point, the climate definitely was creating added pressure, culminating in the Late Glacial Maximum. By which time, the cave bear was gone.

Why did humans kill the bear hibernating in Imanay Cave, if they did? Maybe to eat, though studies checking for butchery marks on other bear bones found only a tiny fraction: a few dozen out of millions of bones, according to Gimranov.

Maybe they just coveted the precious cave space, though there has been speculation that bears used the caves of the steppes and northern environs to hibernate in the winter, while people (or actually, for much of the bears’ career on this Earth, Neanderthals) migrated away for the cold season and used the caves in the summer.

Sleeping grizzlies look a lot like cave bears.Credit: Richard Wear / Design Pics RF /

There is, however, some evidence of Neanderthal and human exploitation of cave bears. In other words, there are marks on some bear bones. Or maybe the bear was killed as a ritual matter.

Evidence of ritual in the late Stone Age is a matter of interpretation. Cave art is a good example: Was it created for beauty’s sake alone, as some form of worship or ritual, or other?

One interesting point in favor of ritual practice is the examples of rock art deep inside caves where no light reaches, i.e., nobody without adequate torchlight could see them anyway. So who were they made for if not supernatural beings, goes that argument. A recent paper published by Prof. Ran Barkai and colleagues at Tel Aviv University suggested that the prehistoric artists creating pictures deep inside narrow caves were experiencing hypoxia – they were semi-suffocated, and likely hallucinating as a result.

Among the favorite motifs of cave art everywhere it was created were animals, and among the animals were bears.

Long story short, the jury is out but the evidence suggesting motives other than crassly utilitarian for artifacts is legion, and Gimranov points out that the hole in the small cave bear’s skull could even have been made after it died, as part of some sort of ritual.

The researchers have yet to determine whether the cavity in the skull killed it or whether it was postmortem, they say.

Actually, we now know more about cave bears than ever before, after not one but two melted out of the Russian permafrost in September 2020. One of the bears, preserved so extraordinarily well that even its black, doglike nose tissue was intact, is the only adult of its kind found sort of intact – until now, studies of this animal had been confined to its bones. It was a large cave bear and had been found by reindeer herders on the Arctic island of Yakutsk. The other one was a cub.

Large cave bears could rear up to more than 3 meters (nearly 10 feet) in height. Small ones were also probably best killed while asleep. But it bears adding that they seem to have been vegetarian, unlikely to have been hunting the humans for food for themselves.

So what have we here? In a cave, a vegetarian small cave bear died 35,000 years ago in the sort of cave people also liked to occupy. It had a hole in its skull that may or may not have been caused by a human. It was a rarity even at the time, as cave bears were under pressure. The researchers add that there is more evidence of people and large cave bears occupying the same space, not so much of small cave bears, and there is categorical evidence of prehistoric hunters killing large cave bears – to wit, a spear point stuck in a bear’s vertebra.