Thousands of cave bear bones found at Paleolithic site

Archaeologists have recovered more than 10,000 animal bones, most of them from cave bears, in two seasons of excavations at a Paleolithic site in the Ansbach district of Bavaria. The first excavation in 2022 recovered seven well-preserved jaw fragments of cave bears. This year’s dig recovered enough cave bear bones to compose an almost complete skeleton of the massive animal. Radiocarbon analysis of bone samples dates them to around 40,000 B.C.

The density of bones is extraordinary, with 300 bones and teeth of various animals found in a test area of just one square meter and 10,000 over an area of 1,200 square meters. They include the remains of cave bears, wolves, mammoths, rhinoceroses, wild horses and the well-preserved remains of an upper jaw and teeth from a cave hyena.

There are cut marks on many of the fragments and pieces of flint worked to a sharp edge were also at the site, and burn marks on small pieces of bone indicate this wasn’t a natural accumulation of animal bone, but rather a processing site used by Paleolithic humans. At that time much of Central Europe was populated by Neanderthals, but it’s not possible to tell whether the stone tools were made by Neanderthals or Homo sapiens sapiens.

At least some of the animals were hunted by people, but they may also have been scavenged after being hunted by animal predators. Neanderthals, for example, are known to have harvested unfinished carrion left behind by hyenas.

The site’s rich evidence of animal and human interaction is extremely rare for the period. The human population in Europe in the Paleolithic was small and widely spread out. Research relies on the examination of just a few thousand individuals, the population of a small town today only scattered across the continent. The concentrated remains here will help scientists shed new light on how early Europeans hunted, scavenged and ate.

The animal bones are currently being examined by archaeozoologists who are documenting their species, age and, if possible, gender. Further studies will include stable isotope analysis that might explain what the animals ate and how far they roamed from their places of origin.