Prehistoric Humans Buried In Bear Nests Alongside Elaborate Cave Art

The disarticulated skeletal remains of an adult male deposited in a bear nest. Pascal Mora.

The 30,000-year-old remains of prehistoric humans have been found buried in the hibernation nests of bears at the bottom of a painted cave complex.

Despite how it first sounds, this wasn’t an unfortunate run-in with a hungry bear, but it does highlight the intense importance of death and art in the Paleolithic world. It appears, the researchers say, the bodies were buried alongside an image-making performance in which others decorated the caves with drawings in an elaborate ritual. 

The skeletal remains were discovered at the Grotte de Cussac, a cave found 20 years ago in southwestern France that’s lined with some 800 examples of cave art, featuring muddled and overlapping engravings of mammoths, rhinoceros, deer, bison, and other beasts of the prehistoric world. 

Some 150 meters (492 feet) deep within the cave, the researchers discovered a complete male skeleton in the shallow bowl-like dips of a former bear nest, along with the bones of at least two other people sorted anatomically in other former nests. Red pigment was also found on some of the human bones and the underlying sediment. Further down the cave, bones from at least three individuals were found mixed together and put into hollows along the wall.

Reported in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the researchers say it's the first time human remains from this time and culture have been found in bear nests. However, the researchers believe it is certainly no coincidence. Study author Sébastien Villotte, an anthropologist at the University of Bordeaux, told IFLScience the presence of nests in the cave appear long before any human activities. 

“Moreover, it seems difficult to imagine bears bringing bodies of five humans, putting them in some specific places with red pigments, and then removing some specific parts,” added Villotte.

“Except if one considers that Pleistocene bears had really weird and complex rites,” he jokes. 

The proximity of the artwork and the organized human remains also raised questions. A recent analysis of the cave suggests the engravings were the result of a collective image-making performance, in which a performer created images in front of an audience as part of some kind of ritual.

The artwork at Grotte de Cussac is especially notable as it features numerous animals all “commingled” together that are loosely etched over the top of one another. The overlapping figures could be some kind of reflection of the intermingled human remains that were being buried, the researchers suggest.

“For the first time, there is direct evidence that burial rites and art were connected in some way in the beliefs of these people. Art was likely done as a performance, with an audience, and the same may be true for funerary rites as well,” Villotte told IFLScience .

“At Cussac, what is surprising is also some similarities between these two aspects: bodies were commingled, as artistic figures are.”

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