Caturday Special: The Eurasian Cave Lion, Panthera spelaea

European cave lions (Panthera spelaea) over a reindeer they have presumably hunted. Despite the three adults seen it is still unknown whether or not the cave lion was a social animals (Credit: Mauricio Antón, © 2008 Public Library of Science, CC-BY-SA 2.5)

CONTENT WARNING: Contains images of animals that were preserved in permafrost that some people may find a little gross.

Real life is savage. I think I’ve made this point multiple times across several of my biology articles. The sanitised brick and concrete we build around us, the entire course of ‘civilisation’ is, in my opinion, not a means of furthering the human cultural agenda. Memetics, the spread of ideas and cultures is merely a biproduct. The reason we build this cage around ourselves is to keep that world out, to protect our genome from the hunters, predators, diseases and pitfalls that took so many of our early ancestors.

There are people that exist today who could never survive in that world. They can’t walk for miles, surviving on little food and water. They may endure social or emotional hardships, but the real physical hardships, the aching limbs, the healing wounds, the ability to struggle on regardless – a lot of modern people lack that. There’s a reason our average lifespans have significantly lengthened. The artifice, its medicine, the support networks, the technologies, everything we have is reducing the dangers of the everyday, of the wild. Our there, out in the wild, one deep cut could kill a previously healthy grown man in his prime. Now we have antibiotics to stop the common infections that would have been the undoing of so many of our pre-civilisation ancestors.

There are people who couldn’t walk through a European grasslands, on weary legs, having walked for days, on meagre rations of dried fruit or meat, their brain operating at less than capacity but still active enough to survey the surroundings, to spot, crouched in the grass, that outline, that shape, muscular and mountainous hind limbs, perched, waiting to pounce.

For early humans, such as those replicated in this diorama, life was about struggling, subsistence and survival. The slightest slip could cause a broken bone you could not afford to mend, a wound that would become infected and never heal, or a failure to spot that danger coming over the next hill. Life is cruel. (Credit: Vince Smith, Exhibit in the Anne and Bernard Spitzer Hall of Human Origins, American Museum of Natural History, CC-BY-2.0)

These people, without the artifice, without the protection afforded to them by thousands of years of human development, are little more than walking meat. They die in the wild.

We have built a world that permits these weak to survive, and this is not an ideological support for social Darwinism, but quite the opposite. I think it shows tremendous strength, heart and character to build a world where safety is provided to those who require it. A world where compassion is shown to those less-able is a world demonstrably better, demonstrably stronger and demonstrably more united.

But still, there are people who are fit to be food for the lions. I do feel a tremendous sadness that a species that once roamed the landscape, that is embroidered in the hearts of every human being, that was once on every continent, the lion, is not present anymore in Europe outside of its African variety and behind secure cages.

The European or Eurasian cave lion is actually a bit of a misnomer. We find a lot of their bones in caves, so presumably that’s where that idea comes from. In actuality, though, they were plains hunters much like their modern African equivalent. They were just about 10-20% larger and, if they had them at all, the males would have had much shorter manes.

A skeleton of Panthera speleae from Vienna Natural History Museum. Getting back to the ‘comparative anatomy’ we’ve been doing a lot recently a few things stand out. It has a tail around…1/3 its body length, tapering to a point. Definitely not arboreal, the tail is a counterweight for the chase, not necessarily a large balance aid. The other thing that stands out is the flats on the leg bones (both hind and forelimbs). As I have mentioned before, flat areas of bone are generally for the attachment of muscle, an anchoring point. These cats would have been buff bastards! The skeletons of modern African lions have similar structure and their muscular boys and girls, too. It does also look remarkably similar to a modern African lion skeleton! (Credit: Tommy CC-BY-2.0)

I mentioned in my top ten cats article about lions that they are fused with human culture. Lions radiated out of Africa almost in tandem with humans, humans and lions literally evolved together. There is evidence enough through our reverent displays of them, their appearances in cave art of the Lowenmensch, that early humans considered lions. How they considered them is difficult to pin down. Were these figures of fear to be placated or were lions kindred, hunters like us who we sometimes quarrelled with.

It is likely lions ate humans, particularly earlier on in human development before social structures and tool development really took off. However there have been cave lion bones found with evidence of knife cuts. Humans likely ate lions too, and would also have used them ritualistically, likely decorating their homes with pelts, teeth and claws.

If we look to the Maasai cultures in Africa we see lion hunting (previously solo, now often done in groups because of reduced lion populations) as a rite of passage. For a man, alone, to kill a lion would be for that man to demonstrate his abilities as a honed hunter. To kill this much larger, much stronger beast would take skill, nous, behavioural knowledge, the ability to manipulate this big cat, to understand it, the ability to have a tool good enough to tackle it with. The pinnacle of a human’s hunting skill is not in being able to kill their preferred prey, but to be able to kill an equivalent, if not better, hunter of the same prey.

A 35,000-40,000 year old representation of a Lio-Person, the Löwenmensch, found in a German cave. It demonstrates our early cultural links with lions, and an almost ritual relationship with them from early on in our development of sophisticated culture. Lions are important to humans. (Credit: Dagmar Hollmann / Wikimedia Commons License: CC BY-SA 4.0)

Humans and lions had, or still have, this iron-sharpening-iron relationship. We make each other stronger. A lion cautious of hunting humans is not only good for humans, but smart for the lion to avoid an unpredictably savage ape. A human lion hunter must use every single slither of human capability to best this most noble, evolved and equipped hunter.

It’s incredible how much lions and humans are bonded. They follow us and we follow them.

So what is a cave lion?

It’s an extinct species in the Panthera genus, Panthera spelaea. Evidence suggests it evolved from lions that radiated out of Africa around 1.5 million years ago. The populations that moved out sort of mingle the genome a little. Around 500,000 years ago is when this interbreeding and the establishment of a separate, Eurasian population seems to have occurred, and the species Panthera spelaea is established.

It’s a good time to talk about speciation, then, isn’t it? I think I’ve mentioned it before but new species don’t just happen from one amazing chance mutation that creates an entirely new creature. Evolution is slow and adaptive. In this case it took around a million years and some kind of segregation or separation of populations to sufficiently define the speciation, the creation of the new species.

There are some who argue that P. spelaea is not different enough from P. leo and so should be a subspecies. There are some who are that P. spelaea shows characteristic more similar to tigers than lions and should be a subspecies of P. tigris.

The point is evolution is effectively a continuum, whereby a barrier – physical, communal, spatial or temporal, creates a schism – a divide. From there these two populations of what are, effectively, the same species start to develop their own mutations which adapt them to their lives and environments and creates the conditions required to form a new species.

A recreation of the Lions Panel of the Chauvet Cave Paintings, dating to around 30,000 years ago they depict many scenes of wildlife and their interactions. This panel shows multiple lions (few, if any, with notable mane structures) observing or chasing bison. Observation of wildlife, whether animistic and ritual or merely for the sake of understanding our environment, is as old as human thought. (Credit: some artist/artists 30,000 years ago via Claude Valette, CC-BY-SA-4.0)

It’s actually both really interesting and really boring at the same time. The complexities of the pressures that lead to speciation are fascinating but then in my undergrad study a lot of the discussion on it was pedantic and semantic.

There is an intermediary species, for example, P. fossilis, which seems to occur around 700,000-600,000 years ago. Speciated enough from the prehistoric African lions, but an intermediary between that species and P. spelaea.

There is also evidence that the Eurasian cave lion had a sister group in the Americas – The American lion (Panthera atrox). So the theory goes that the Eurasian cave lion was once dispersed across the entirety of Europe, Asia and across Beringia into North America, however an interglacial period around 300,000 years ago cut off this population from the rest of the P. spelaea and caused the speciation into P. atrox.

It’s fucking amazing, isn’t it!?

A comparison of lion species with a 1.8m (six foot) human. As you can see, P. atrox was likely the largest species, although the margins are very slender, only around 10% difference at each step. (Credit: Prehistoric-wildlife.com, used without permission)

In terms of size, shape, basic morphology we’re just looking at a slightly bigger lion. Fossil skulls seem to indicate some difference in muzzle shape (being longer and narrower) and, as mentioned, most depictions do not show manes so it is believed males did not have the prominent manes of African lions, although they may have had smaller manes.

They covered pretty much the entire continent from Britain and Iberia in the west as far east as Alaska and, as evidenced by the presence of a genetic sister species in P. atrox, likely even further. Most of the bones we find are comparatively recent, the oldest being only around 60,000 years old but most of them coming from the late Pleistocene around 14,000-11,000 years ago.

It is believed one of the reasons they are found often in caves is due to the cold climatic conditions. Much like modern Amur tigers, it is believed they may have created dens within caves for escaping the harsh weather. They also, as has been seen from frozen fur specimens, appear to have had a dense undercoat of fur to help keep them warm.

Whole cubs have been discovered in Siberian permafrost, which gives us amazing specimens for studying infant morphology and their genome.

Not the kind of Kitten Tax I want to pay, these young cave lion cubs were discovered in Siberian permafrost. Whilst their chance finding gives us great insight into cave lions to know these cats likely became trapped, suffocated and died in such a tragic way is horrible to consider. (Credit: Vera Salnitskaya via SiberianTimes, used without permission)

As far as what they ate? Well I suspect, like with many modern big cats, humans would have been low on the menu – we’re hard to catch, feisty, fight back, socially punitive, mostly bone, not enough fat and meat and a bit rubbish. Because of the age of the bones we find the evidence indicates a lot of eating reindeer, but this is likely because the other Pleistocene megafauna would have been much reduced at the time. Wild horses, red deer, giant deer, aurochs, bison even perhaps young woolly rhino and woolly mammoth would have likely been on the menu.

As far as competitors go we’re talking about a species that existed at the same time as cave hyena and cave bears, as well as the very effective social hunters the grey wolves. Still, the cave lion would have been apex or near-apex. It is unlikely, outside of daring and opportunistic humans, that anything would eat a cave lion.

One of the enduring mysteries of the cave lion is its social life. Whilst some cave paintings seem to depict two lions together the evidence and fossils found provide little evidence of the same social structures found in African lions. There is every possibility that the cave lion was a solitary species of lion.

A cave painting of what is likely another species intrinsically linked with lions – the hyena. The cave hyena, Crocuta crocuta spelaea, was likely a competitor to cave lions much as modern spotted hyenas are competitors to African lions. It’s crazy to think that until only around 15,000 years ago lions and hyenas would have been competing in the lowland, grassy regions of the United Kingdom or France! (credit: Carla216, CC-BY-SA 2.0)

Perhaps this accounts for its growth compared to the African lion, whilst the African lions could rely on their pack abilities to take down their prey – coordinated tactics, the reduction in danger to the individual by division of labour amongst the group – the cave lion may have been afforded no such luxury. Did they, then, grow larger in order to more quickly and efficiently take down their large prey without needing group tactics? These are the kinds of biological mysteries we love and desperately seek evidence to find answers for.

There’s one thing undeniable about the cave lion, though. Like their African relatives, these are a species of great significance to us. There is a frequency of life to lions that resonates with the human – even though there are bigger cats, louder cats, prettier cats, lions still draw eyes and make our hearts flutter.

I don’t think this is just fear. I think this is almost ancestral memory. From our earliest days grinding rocks in the dry plains of Africa to our radiation out into Europe, in Britain, Iberia, Central Europe, Eastern Europe, Asia – these cats came with us and shared a way of life.

A painting of a cave lion over a recently killed reindeer from a series of collectable cards. (Credit: Heinrich Harder, Public Domain)

I don’t think the Lowenmensch, a figurine of an anthropomorphic (human shaped) lion-man is a ritualistic figure of fear. I think it is a representation of our recognition of the similarities between lions and us. It is a veneration of their ability as hunters, and a testament to a spirit we desire to embody when we hunt for ourselves. We want their keen eyes, their otherworldly strength, their abundant agility and the sharp tools, tooth-and-claw, so that we may be successful.

Why would a craftsperson tens of thousands of years ago invest in painstakingly carving a figurine as a symbol of fear? This was a symbol of reverence. A hero cult to another species that we so desperately wish we could be.

Even today having the ‘heart of a lion’ means to be bold, strong, brave and noble.

That’s just what Eurasian cave lions were.

Can’t get enough cat!? We’ve got plenty more! Now is the purr-fect time to cat-ch up with all our cat content to get yourself feline fine!

Top Ten Cats: Introduction – The basics of cat biology, evolution and natural history.
Top Ten Cats #10 – The Pallas’ cat – a small, very fluffy pika-hunter from Asia.
Top Ten Cats #9 – Jaguarundi – A unique and little known Puma relative.
Top Ten Cats #8 – Clouded Leopard – A stealthy and stunning Asian cat.
Top Ten Cats #7 – Jaguar – Beauty in spades, loves swimming, cracks skulls with teeth…
Top Ten Cats #6 – Lion – Emblematic, beautiful and social, an amazing cat.
Top Ten Cats #5 – Black-footed cat – one of the smallest, yet most deadly wild cats.
Top Ten Cats #4 – Smilodon – Going prehistoric with the sabre-toothed cats.
Top Ten Cats #3 – Tiger – One of the most gorgeous animals to have ever existed.
Top Ten Cats #2 – Cheetah – The placid lovechild of a sportscar and a murderer.
Top Ten Cats #1 – Domestic cats – Saviour of our foodstores and loving companions.

Caturday Special: The Origin StoryProailurus and Pseudaelurus – The progenitor species of all modern cats examined.
Caturday Special: The Snow Leopard – The ‘Ghost of the Mountains’ gets an examination, a beautiful cat with some remarkable characteristics.
Caturday Special: The Scottish Wildcat – Once an emblem of so many Scottish clans, now this poor, cute, and feisty wildcat is struggling to survive due to historic persecution and current ongoing interbreeding with domestic cats.
Caturday Special: The Serval – Find out about this elegant and beautiful medium-sized African wildcat and how it has become part of our domesticated cat lineage!
Caturday Special: The Kodkod – The smallest cat in the Americas and endemic to only a small part of Chile and Argentina, find out about this amazing little boopster.
Caturday Special: The Feliformia and the Spotted Hyena – Did you know that hyenas are actually more closely related to cats than to dogs? They are members of sub-order of carnivores called ‘Feliformiae‘ or the cat-like carnivores. Learn more about them, the hyena and the hyena’s remarkable genitals here.
Caturday Special: The Cougar – The second biggest cat in the Americas is actually more closely related to your domestic moggy than the lion! Learn more!
Caturday Special: The Eurasian Lynx – One of my continent’s most handsome predators and one that certain groups are looking to get reintroduced to the UK after a 1,000 year absence in the hope it will control rabbit and roe deer numbers. I’m all for it!
Caturday Special: Hybrids – Looking at the phenomenon of hybrid species, with focus on cats like the liger, the pumapard and the Kellas cat, as well as some talk about domestic hybrids like chausie, bengals and caracats.
Caturday Special: The Fishing Cat – It’s a cat that loves to fish. An adorable little kitto from Asia.
Caturday Special: The Marbled Cat – A beautiful Asian cat of the Bay-Cat lineage that completes a write up of a cat species from every extant cat clade and that discusses the smaller, little known cats and why they are worth study.

Published by Karl Anthony Mercer

Like a dark-chocolate fountain at a weight loss party, Karl Anthony Mercer is an under-utilised river of bittersweetness. When not busy researching or writing about any and all non-fiction topics for 'We Lack Discipline' Karl can often be found walking, staring at wildlife or writing poetry.

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