The now-extinct cave bear had a lot to contend with back in the day. Not only were there the bitter colds of the Late Pleistocene era (126,000 to 11,700 years ago), climate-change-induced food shortages, and the occasional cave lion attack but bands of Neanderthals would regularly ambush sleeping bears as they awoke from their annual slumber.
According to a paper recently published in the Journal of Archaeological Science, the bears were targeted by the ancient hominins for their pelts, meat, and living quarters.
Marco Peresani at the University of Ferrara in Italy and his team analyzed over 1,700 bear bones found in the Rio Secco and Fomane caves in Northern Italy. Some belonged to the brown bear (Ursus arctos), a species that continues to roam much of Europe today, but the bulk came from cave bears (Ursus spelaeus).
Many of the bones reveal cut marks and lying next to the remains were hundreds of stone tools.
“These cave bears were hunted and butchered by Neanderthals,” Peresani told New Scientist, who added it was likely attacks happened in the springtime when they were at their most vulnerable, just after the bears' hibernation period and when female bears gave birth.
Among the fossils are remains belonging to adults, cubs, and fetuses. There are penis bones, showing that Neanderthals did on occasion hunt down male bears but the researchers believe females were their main targets. Not only were still-massive females half the size of male bears, they would have been weak after hibernation and giving birth.
According to Peresani, the Neanderthal hunters were probably after the bears' pelts. However, they clearly made the most of their kill – bite marks matching Neanderthal teeth have been spotted on some of the bones. Other fossils show sign of bashing, possibly a Neanderthal technique for extracting bone marrow.
It is also likely they used the then-empty caves as lodgings post-ambush, Peresani says, sometimes for months at a time.
Ultimately, the cave bear population of Europe were able to weather the attacks. In the end, it wasn't the Neanderthals (or even the Homo sapiens) that led the cave bear to extinction but global warming.
The species died out around 27,800 years ago during the Last Glacial Maximum, when changes in temperature severely limited their food supply. They were one of the first mega-mammals to die out – shortly followed by the woolly mammoth and the cave lion.