October 28, 2016

The destiny of a cave lion: to serve as decoration


Spanish researchers have concluded that a carpet or other comparable fur ornament (a tapestry?, a cape?) is why a late cave lion remains, the latest ones known in Iberia, were found in an otherwise human (Magdalenian) context in the cave of La Garma (Asturias, Spain): it was a fur, claws included, used as decoration of some sort.

Marian Cueto et al., Under the Skin of a Lion: Unique Evidence of Upper Paleolithic Exploitation and Use of Cave Lion (Panthera spelaea) from the Lower Gallery of La Garma (Spain). PLoS ONE, 2016. Open accessLINK [doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0163591]


Pleistocene skinning and exploitation of carnivore furs have been previously inferred from archaeological evidence. Nevertheless, the evidence of skinning and fur processing tends to be weak and the interpretations are not strongly sustained by the archaeological record. In the present paper, we analyze unique evidence of patterned anthropic modification and skeletal representation of fossil remains of cave lion (Panthera spelaea) from the Lower Gallery of La Garma (Cantabria, Spain). This site is one of the few that provides Pleistocene examples of lion exploitation by humans. Our archaeozoological study suggests that lion-specialized pelt exploitation and use might have been related to ritual activities during the Middle Magdalenian period (ca. 14800 cal BC). Moreover, the specimens also represent the southernmost European and the latest evidence of cave lion exploitation in Iberia. Therefore, the study seeks to provide alternative explanations for lion extinction in Eurasia and argues for a role of hunting as a factor to take into account.

Fig 4. Cave lion distal phalanxes from the Lower Gallery of La Garma.
Note that only eight of nine specimens are depicted in the figure.

Above: the claws that are the only remnants found of said lion, whose cut marks are fully coincident with skinning techniques used in more recent times with similar decorative purpose. They are believed to be all anterior claws and that one is missing therefore. That is why they imagine the fur to have been cut with an aesthetic interest, because the hind claws would not be visible if the fur was, for example, hang on the wall, so they were probably cut off.

Whether hunting of lions by humans was a decisive, contributing or negligible factor in cave lion extinction remains unclear.

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