Cavemen Hunted Ice Age Lions to Extinction for Their Pelts

A caveman's lair 16,000 years ago included the pelt of a cave lion, an animal that we likely drove to extinction.

Evidence is mounting that humans played a primary role in the extinction of European cave lions, with new research finding that cavemen hunted the big cats for their pelts not too long before the lions disappeared from the face of the Earth.

One pelt once even decorated part of the cave site floor of La Garma in northern Spain, probably for symbolic and ritualistic purposes. Its remains, dating to about 16,000 years ago, are described in PLOS ONE.

The skin of animals was most commonly used to make clothing, "but this was not a common pelt," Marián Cueto of the University of Cantabria, Spain, told Seeker. "It comes from a lion, a very dangerous animal and surely one that was really difficult to hunt, so it probably had an important role as a trophy."

RELATED: Ancient Cave Lion Cubs Found in Russian Permafrost

She went on to say that many societies, both past and present, viewed lions as symbols of power.

All that's left of the pelt are the lion's claws, which retain marks consistent with human modification of the overall pelt.

"We have observed cut-marks made by a silex (ground stone) instrument in all of them, indicating they separated the claws from the rest of the foot," Cueto explained. "These cut-marks are very clear and show expertise in skinning lions. They had knowledge of the anatomy: where to cut in the exact place."

Early Europeans could not have ignored cave lions, since female lions inhabited caves to raise their cubs and no doubt encountered people from time to time. Humans also hunted reindeer and other cave lion prey.

Cueto and her team suspect that, as the human population increased in Europe, they pushed out the cave lions in multiple ways, including killing them. Humans also contributed to the extinction of other iconic Ice Age animals. At least 177 large mammals, including the cave lion, went extinct as this era drew to a close. They include woolly mammoths, saber-tooth cats, mastodons and giant sloths.

The European cave lion bit the dust even earlier -- around 14,000 years ago -- so our hunting of them likely sped up the extinction.

No one knows just what these long-gone lions looked like. As Cueto said, "It's not easy describing the fur of an animal extinct in the Pleistocene because we have only recovered its skeleton."

The cave lion's skeleton is bigger but otherwise identical to modern lions, so scientists assume the animals would have looked pretty similar.

RELATED: Cavemen, Cave Bears Battled Over Turf

She added, however, that cave lions were included in cave paintings. Drawings of lions appear on the walls of caves at Chauvet (France), for example. Prehistoric figurines from Vogelherd Cave (Germany) also exist.

"In all of them," she said, "the male cave lions lacked manes."

She and her team describe La Garma is being a "time machine" that preserves many aspects of early European caveman life. Future studies may reveal more about the ancient European's culture, and what exactly they were doing with the painstakingly-worked lion pelts.

Image: Illustration showing European cave lions over reindeer prey and surrounded by woolly mammoths and early horses in an Ice Age landscape. Credit: Mauricio Anton, PLOS Biology, Wikimedia Commons