During the last Ice Age, more than 100 cave bears died in Imanay Cave, a 100-meter-long corridor of stone in Russia’s southern Ural Mountains. The dead bears, along with a cave lion and a few other Pleistocene mammals, left behind nearly 10,000 bones, which have mostly worn down to small fragments over the millennia. Most of them were so-called small cave bears, Ursus spelaeus eremus, notable for being smaller than the so-called large cave bear, Ursus spelaeus—and for their apparent habit of dying en masse while hibernating through the harsh Pleistocene winters, leaving behind huge assemblages of bones for modern paleontologists to find.
Most of the cave bear bones found in Eurasia, including the ones at Imanay Cave, show no signs of violence, butchering, or gnawing. They seem to have died quietly, perhaps of cold, starvation, or illness. But while cleaning one cave bear skull from Imanay, Dmitry Gimranov of the Ural Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences and his colleagues noticed a rather suspicious hole in the parietal bone, near the back of the skull.
The lower edge of the hole is a gentle curve with a flattened base, while the upper edge is more uneven and widens sharply in the middle. Its shape is strikingly similar to the cross-section of stone projectile points unearthed in the same layer of cave sediment as most of the bear bones. Those points tend to have a flat ventral (or lower) side and a more curved dorsal (or upper) side with a sharp rib of stone sticking up along the center. And they’re about the same size as the hole in the bear skull.
“Matching the section and size of the points and the hole on the bear’s skull allows [us] to assume that the beast was hit with just such a weapon,” wrote Gimranov and his colleagues. “Most likely, the spike was used as a spearhead.” (They published their work in the Russian journal Vestnik Archeologii, Anthropologii, I Ethnographii, but you can read an English abstract here; copy-and-pasting excerpts of the Russian paper into Google Translate also yields very readable results.)
It was clearly a powerful blow. The spearhead pierced the bear’s skull and left its mark on the surrounding bone. “The walls of the hole are chipped, visible on the surface numerous flat facets directed from the hole along the surface of the bone, as well as through cracks going in the same direction,” wrote Gimranov and his colleagues. “The described features of the hole indicate its obvious artificial origin in a very strong impact with a hard object.”
If Gimranov and his colleagues are correct, that could mean that a person killed at least one of the 110 dead small cave bears in Imanay Cave.
Loaded for bear
That’s not as surprising as it sounds—there’s some evidence of people killing and even butchering other bear species, like large cave bears and brown bears, during the Pleistocene. For instance, archaeologists have found the bones of about two dozen large cave bears at sites scattered across Eurasia; many have the telltale cut-and-scrape marks of defleshing, and one even has the tip of a stone projectile still lodged in a vertebra.
Of course, that’s a few dozen out of literally millions of bear bones unearthed at Pleistocene sites across Europe and western Asia. We probably shouldn’t picture Pleistocene hunters going after bears as prey on a regular basis. But the need for shelter from the elements probably brought people and bears into contact alarmingly often.
“Caves attracted not only animals, but also humans,” wrote Gimranov and his colleagues. “Finding the bones of cave bears and artifacts together is quite common.” At Imanay Cave, for instance, archaeologists found stone tools from the Mousterian culture, as well as bits of charcoal and ocher, in the same sediment layers as the bear bones. That’s fairly common at other sites in Eurasia, too. And in one French cave, dating to around the same age as Imanay Cave, people buried their dead in abandoned bear nests. In other caves, people and bears almost seemed to take turns, with human footprints overlapping bear tracks and vice versa.
So although you’d have to be crazy or desperate to hunt cave bears for dinner on a regular basis, it’s reasonable to speculate that people trying to survive the Ice Age may sometimes have survived surprise encounters with disgruntled bears or scavenged the meat from freshly dead carcasses. If Gimranov and his colleagues are right about the Imanay Cave bear skull, at least one Pleistocene hunter had one heck of a bear story to tell.
Paws for reflection
Unfortunately, we can’t learn the really exciting details of that story, but here’s what we can piece together from the available evidence: radiocarbon dating material from the bone reveals that the encounter happened roughly 35,000 years ago. The broken bone didn’t have time to start healing, which suggests that the injury occurred right around the time of death. And calcite deposits had time to form in the cracks and facets around the hole, which means the skull spent a very long time buried in the cave after the damage was done; in other words, the damage happened before burial, not during.
Based on the number of growth layers in the root of one molar, the bear was probably between nine and 10 years old when it died. Bear teeth grow new layers twice a year, during the summer and during the winter. By counting those layers, Gimranov and his colleagues concluded that the bear died during the winter, when it would most likely have been curled up in the cave hibernating. That scenario seems to match the location of the stab wound: at the back of the bear’s skull, near the base, as if the person who did the stabbing was standing behind and above the bear.
It’s not too hard to picture a Pleistocene person wandering into a cave, maybe looking for shelter, and stumbling across a dozing bear, then stabbing it in a moment of panic. That’s pure speculation, of course. Gimranov and his colleagues also suggest the damage may have been done after the bear died as part of a ritual, but there’s no other evidence of ritual activity in the cave, and no other bear skulls seem to have been stabbed.
Vestnik Archeologii, Anthropologii, I Ethnographii, 2021 DOI: 10.1020874/2071-0437-2021-53-2-1; (About DOIs).