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. In the following list, you'll discover essential Cave Bear facts.

01
of 10

The Cave Bear Was (Mostly) a Vegetarian

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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. However, while Ursus spelaeus definitely didn't snack on early humans or other 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 (and, of course, it would have defended itself fiercely in a fight).

02
of 10

Early Humans Worshiped Cave Bears as Gods

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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 (though some skeptics have other, bloodier explanations for the intermingling of Homo sapiens and Ursus spelaeus remains). 

03
of 10

Male Cave Bears Were Much Bigger Than Females

cave bear
Wikimedia Commons

Ursus spelaeus embraced the concept of 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, the result being that most of the Cave Bear skeletons on display in museums worldwide belong to the heftier (and more fearsome) males--a historical injustice that, one hopes, will soon be rectified.

04
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The Cave Bear Is a Distant Cousin of the Brown Bear

brown bear
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"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 bugs. 

05
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Cave Bears Were Preyed on by Cave Lions

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. 

06
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Thousands of Cave Bear Fossils Were Destroyed During World War I

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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. Well, think again: the Cave Bear fossilized in such abundance (literally hundreds of thousands of skeletons in caves all over Europe) that a boatload of specimens were boiled down for their phosphates during the First World War. Even despite this loss, there are plenty of fossilized individuals available for study today!

07
of 10

Cave Bears Were First Identified in the 18th Century

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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 the German naturalist Johann Friederich Esper attributed them to polar bears (a pretty good guess, considering the state of knowledge at the time). It was only at the turn of the 19th century that the Cave Bear was definitively identified as a long-extinct ursine species. 

08
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You Can Tell Where a Cave Bear Lived by the Shape of Its Teeth

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Wikimedia Commons

Over the million or so years of their existence, Cave Bears were more or less prevalent in various parts of Europe--so it's relatively easy to identify when any given individual lived. For example, later Cave Bears possessed a more "molarized" tooth structure that allowed them to extract the maximal nutritional value from tough vegetation--an example of evolution in action, as food became more and more scarce toward the beginning of the last Ice Age.

09
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Cave Bears Were Doomed by Competition With Early Humans

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Unlike the case with other 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.

10
of 10

Scientists Have Reconstituted Some Cave Bear DNA

cave bear
Wikimedia Commons

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, though, there has been very little buzz about cloning a Cave Bear, most efforts in this regard focusing on the better-preserved Woolly Mammoth.