Ancient bones unearthed from an archaeological site in Germany suggest that archaic humans were skinning bears for their skins at least 320,000 years ago.
Markings found on the phalangeal and metatarsal paw bones of a cave bear (Ursus spelaeus or U. deningeri) represent some of the earliest known evidence of this type and demonstrate one of the measures our ancient relatives used to survive the harsh winter conditions in the area at the time.
“The exploitation of bears, especially cave bears, has been an ongoing debate for more than a century and is important not only in the context of hominin diets but also for the use of hides,” wrote a team of researchers led by archaeozoologist Ivo Verheijen. University of Tübingen in Germany.
“Tracing the origin of leather use may contribute to the understanding of survival strategies in the cold and harsh conditions of Northwestern Europe during the Middle Pleistocene.”
The region surrounding the German town of Schöningen has been of interest to archaeologists for decades. In the 1990s, researchers discovered a range of ancient artifacts from a nearby open-pit mine, including the oldest complete wooden weapons ever discovered, a set of spears dated between 300,000 and 337,000 years ago.
Other items included stone tools, bone tools, and a number of animal bones, including those of cave bears. And many of those bones had cut marks on them—a sign that ancient humans had butchered the animals, their tools abrading the bones as they went.
But the cut marks on the two paw bones were curious. Not only were they small and precise, the fact that they were there at all was cause for investigation.
“Cut marks on bones are often interpreted in archeology as an indication of the use of meat,” explains Verheijen. “But there is hardly any flesh to extract from the bones of the hands and feet. In this case, we can attribute such marks to fine and precise cuts for the careful removal of the skin.”
They compared their bones to other examples of cut marks on bear paw bones analyzed in the scientific literature, and ultimately attributed them to skin. The cut marks on the bones found in Schöningen were similar enough for Verheijen and his team to conclude that ancient humans (or A man from Heidelberg or Neanderthals) were making bearskins when the site was in use.
This likely provided humans with better protection than their relatively hairless skins. Bears have a thick coat in warmer times; in winter, it is supplemented by the growth of a soft layer that provides further insulation against the cold. Even though the world was in an interglacial period at the time—that is, between ice ages, relatively warm—winters would still be harsh.
“These newly discovered cut marks are an indication that around 300,000 years ago, people in northern Europe were able to survive the winter, thanks in part to the warm skin of the bear,” says Verheijen.
This naturally raises the question of how the skins were obtained. In order to be usable, a bear’s skin must be shed very quickly after death, so just sitting around waiting for a cave bear to drop dead is unlikely to be a useful strategy. Fortunately, bones and weapons found at the site suggest an answer.
“If only adult animals are found at an archaeological site, this is usually considered an indication of hunting,” says Verheijen. “At Schöningen, all bear bones and teeth belonged to adult individuals.”
So taken together, the bear remains at Schöningen suggest that people were hunting bears and then skinning them for their luxurious pelts. How exactly they used the jelly remains open to speculation, but it is unlikely that such groups of people would have walked around naked, the researchers say; therefore, the likelihood is that those skins were used either for clothing or for sleeping.
The research was published in Journal of Human Evolution.