Recent research conducted by experts at the University of Tübingen and the Senckenberg Centre for Human Evolution and Palaeoenvironment in Tübingen, Germany, suggests that our ancestors might have developed the technology to fashion clothing from bear pelts as far back as 320,000 years ago.
This discovery is based on findings in Germany, where bear bones were unearthed at the Lower Paleolithic site of Schöningen in Lower Saxony, Germany. The bones belonged to an extinct species of cave bear, which was prevalent during the Ice Age.
These cave bears were massive creatures, some reaching over 10 feet in length and weighing more than a metric ton. However, it’s worth noting that during the summer months, cave bears in Schöningen were considerably smaller.
The significance of these findings lies in the thin cutmarks observed on the phalanx (in the throat) and metatarsal bones (in the foot) of the cave bears. These cutmarks provide early evidence of the exploitation of bear skins.
The presence of cave bears during the Ice Age meant that they shared their habitat with early humans. Interactions between humans and these enormous creatures were highly probable. While it’s likely that humans hunted cave bears for their meat, the accumulation of cave bear bones in unusual arrangements on cave floors has led to the interpretation that these creatures may have been actively hunted and even worshiped as part of some cultural or ritualistic practice.
Archaeozoologist Ivo Verheijen of the University of Tübingen in Germany, who led the research team, emphasized the historical significance of this discovery.
“The exploitation of bears, especially cave bears, has been an ongoing debate for over a century and is relevant not only in the context of hominin diets but also for the use of skins,” Verheijen stated.
In archaeology, cut marks on bones are often associated with the utilization of meat. Tracking the origins of hide exploitation can provide insight into the survival strategies employed by ancient populations living in the cold and harsh conditions of Northwestern Europe during the Middle Pleistocene.
The Schöningen region, where these significant findings occurred, has long been a treasure trove for researchers. In the 1990s, an open-cut mine in the area yielded an array of ancient artifacts, including the oldest complete wooden weapons ever found. Among these were a set of spears dating back 300,000 to 337,000 years, adding to the wealth of knowledge about our ancient ancestors and their remarkable achievements.
More information: Verheijen, I., et al. (2022). Early evidence for bear exploitation during MIS 9 from the site of Schöningen 12 (Germany), Journal of Human Evolution, 103294, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jhevol.2022.103294