Cave bear skeleton donated to the Earth Sciences Museum

Sunday, May 24, 2009
John E Motz

The Cave bear was a giant ice-age relative of modern bears

Curator Peter Russell (left) with donor Frank Brookfield and the cave bear
The cave bear (Ursus spelaeus) got it’s name because it spent most of its life living in caves, rather than just using them as hibernation dens, as is the case with modern bears. Cave bears ranged across much of Europe (see map on page 26). The greatest concentrations of remains have been found in Austria, Switzerland, southern Germany, northern Italy, northern Spain, Croatia, Hungary and Romania. Some caves contain vast deposits of bones. In Romania, for example, 140 cave bear skeletons were found in Bears’ Cave. 

Curator Peter Russell (left) with donor Frank Brookfield and the cave bear.

Such rich deposits have lead some scientists to suggest cave bears may have lived in herds, while others point out that the bones accumulated over tens of thousands of years, so it wasn’t necessary for many individuals to be present at any one time. Cave bears lived from about 200,000 to 10,000 years ago. They share a common ancestor with modern bears but, between 500,000 and one million years ago, the lineage which includes cave bears split from the line from which modern bears evolved. This cave bear line was a dead end, so no direct descendants exist. The closest living relative is the modern brown bear. Male cave bears grew to about three metres in height (about 30% bigger than the brown bear) and weighed 400 to 600 kilograms. Females were smaller. 
Analysis of teeth and the composition of bones indicates that cave bears were predominantly vegetarian, eating things like berries, herbs, shrubs and wild honey, although bears in some areas may have been carnivores. Their life span was about 20 years. Many bears died during hibernation, often as a result of failing to build up enough body fat reserves during spring, summer and fall to last them through the winter. The reason or reasons cave bears became extinct is unknown. One possibility is that the shrinkage of forests at the end of the ice age lead to habitat loss. (Compiled from Wikipedia;; and

Cave bears inspired a cult

Some collections of cave bear remains suggest that Neanderthal man may have worshipped these animals. At Drachenlock, in Switzerland, a stone chest, believed to have been built by Neanderthals, was discovered with cave bear skulls stacked upon it. At the cave entrance there were seven bear skulls arranged with their snouts facing outward, and deeper in the cave there were six more bear skulls in niches along the wall. The skull of a three-year-old bear with its cheek pierced by the leg bone of another bear, the supposed symbol of the cult of the cave bear, was also found in this cave. 
In Regourdou, southern France. A rectangular pit, covered by a stone slab, was found to contain the remains of at least twenty bears. The remains of a Neanderthal lay nearby in another stone pit, with various objects, including a bear humerus (arm bone), a scraper, a stone core, and some stone flakes, which were interpreted as grave offerings. 
The idea that the cave bear had spiritual importance to Neanderthals was used in the religion of the Neanderthal people in Jean M. Auel’s 1980 novel “The Clan of the Cave Bear” and the 1986 movie of the same name starring Daryl Hannah. 

The University of Waterloo's cave bear

The museum’s cave bear was donated by Frank Brookfield, who purchased it at an online auction. Not much is known about this specimen. It is male, 2.7 metres tall and was found in a cave in eastern Europe. Frank Brookfield believes the bones of our bear are from one individual. Many are composed of bones from several bears, since caves often contain assemblages of bones from multiple individuals and it is difficult to determine which bones belong together. 
Frank Brookfield was formerly biology curator of our museum. This cave bear skeleton is one of several donations he has made to the university. The Earth Sciences Museum wishes to thank Mr. Brookfield for his generosity in donating this specimen.