Facts About the Cave Bear

Cave bear (Ursus spelaeus), extinct bear from Pleistocene Epoch, drawing
De Agostini Picture Library / Getty Images

Jean Auel's novel "The Clan of the Cave Bear" made it famous the world over, but the Cave Bear (Ursus spelaeus) was intimately familiar to Homo sapiens for thousands of generations before the modern era. Here are some essential Cave Bear facts.

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The Cave Bear Was (Mostly) a Vegetarian

Nastasic / Getty Images

As fearsome-looking as it was (up to 10 feet long and 1,000 pounds), the Cave Bear subsisted mostly on plants, seeds, and tubers, as paleontologists can infer from the wear patterns on its fossilized teeth. While Ursus spelaeus definitely didn't snack on early humans or another Pleistocene megafauna, there is some evidence that it was an opportunistic omnivore, not averse to scavenging the carcasses of small animals or raiding insect nests.

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Early Humans Worshiped Cave Bears as Gods

Early Humans Worshiped Cave Bears as Gods
GraphicaArtis / Contributor / Getty Images

As devastating an impact as Homo sapiens ultimately had on Ursus spelaeus, early humans possessed enormous respect for the Cave Bear. At the start of the 20th century, paleontologists excavated a Swiss cave containing a wall stacked with Cave Bear skulls, and caves in Italy and southern France have also yielded tantalizing hints of early Cave Bear worship. 

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Male Cave Bears Were Much Bigger Than Females

Cave Bear (Ursus spelaeus)
Patrick Bürgler

Ursus spelaeus exhibited sexual dimorphism: Cave Bear males weighed up to half a ton apiece, while females were more petite, "only" tipping the scales at 500 pounds or so. Ironically, it was once believed that female cave bears were underdeveloped dwarfs, resulting in most of the Cave Bear skeletons on display in museums worldwide belong to the heftier (and more fearsome) male, a historical injustice that, one hopes, will soon be rectified.

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The Cave Bear Is a Distant Cousin of the Brown Bear

Brown Bear
Gavriel Jecan / Getty Images

"Brown bear, brown bear, what do you see? I see a Cave Bear looking at me!" Well, that's not exactly how the children's book goes, but as far as evolutionary biologists can tell, the Brown Bear and the Cave Bear shared a common ancestor, the Etruscan Bear, that lived about a million years ago, during the middle Pleistocene epoch. The modern Brown Bear is about the same size as Ursus spelaeus, and also pursues a mostly vegetarian diet, sometimes supplemented by fish and insects. 

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Cave Bears Were Preyed on by Cave Lions

Cave lion and cave bear

Hendrik Hondius

Food was scarce on the ground during the brutal winters of late Pleistocene Europe, meaning that the fearsome Cave Lion occasionally had to venture outside its usual comfort zone in search of prey. The scattered skeletons of Cave Lions have been discovered in Cave Bear dens, the only logical explanation being that packs of Panthera leo spelaea occasionally hunted hibernating Cave Bears—and were surprised to find some of their would-be victims wide awake. 

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Thousands of Cave Bear Fossils Were Destroyed During World War I

Sion Touhig / Staff / Getty Images

One usually thinks of 50,000-year-old fossils as rare, valuable objects consigned to museums and research universities and well-guarded by responsible authorities. This isn't so, with regards to the Cave Bear: The Cave Bear fossilized in such abundance (literally hundreds of thousands of skeletons in caves all over Europe) that a boatload of specimens was boiled down for their phosphates during World War I. Despite this loss, there are plenty of fossilized individuals available for study today.

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Cave Bears Were First Identified in the 18th Century

Cave bear

Fizped /Wikimedia Commons

Various humans have known about the Cave Bear for tens of thousands of years, but the European scientists of the Enlightenment were fairly clueless. Cave Bear bones were ascribed to apes, big dogs and cats, and even unicorns and dragons until 1774 when the German naturalist Johann Friederich Esper attributed them to polar bears (a pretty good guess, considering the state of scientific knowledge at the time). At the turn of the 19th century, the Cave Bear was definitively identified as a long-extinct ursine species. 

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You Can Tell Where a Cave Bear Lived by the Shape of Its Teeth

cave bear

Didier Descouens/Wikimedia Commons

Over the million or so years of their existence, Cave Bears were more or less prevalent in various parts of Europe and it's relatively easy to identify when any given individual lived. Later Cave Bears, for example, possessed a more "molarized" tooth structure that allowed them to extract the maximal nutritional value from tough vegetation. These changes give a window into evolution in action since these dental changes correlate with food becoming more and more scarce toward the beginning of the last Ice Age.

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Cave Bears Were Doomed by Competition With Early Humans

Early humans

Nathan McCord, U.S. Marine Corps

Unlike the case with another mammalian megafauna of the Pleistocene epoch, there's no evidence that human beings hunted Cave Bears to extinction. Rather, Homo sapiens complicated the lives of Cave Bears by occupying the most promising and readily available caves, leaving Ursus spelaeus populations to freeze in the bitter cold. Multiply that by a few hundred generations, combine it with widespread famine, and you can understand why the Cave Bear vanished off the face of the earth before the last Ice Age.

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Scientists Have Reconstituted Some Cave Bear DNA

Since the very last Cave Bears lived 40,000 or so years ago, in extremely frigid climates, scientists have succeeded in extracting both mitochondrial and genomic DNA from various preserved individuals; not enough to actually clone a Cave Bear, but enough to show how closely related Ursus spelaeus was to the Brown Bear. To date, there has been little buzz about cloning a Cave Bear; most efforts in this regard focus on the better-preserved Woolly Mammoth.

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Strauss, Bob. "Facts About the Cave Bear." ThoughtCo, Aug. 28, 2020, thoughtco.com/facts-about-the-cave-bear-1093335. Strauss, Bob. (2020, August 28). Facts About the Cave Bear. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/facts-about-the-cave-bear-1093335 Strauss, Bob. "Facts About the Cave Bear." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/facts-about-the-cave-bear-1093335 (accessed May 28, 2023).