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The Cave Bear Story by Björn Kurtén

The Cave Bear Story

by Björn Kurtén

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An illustration of the way scientific information gradually infuses popular culture: there are technical papers about some discovery, followed some years later by more popular accounts, followed some years after that by appearance in literature.

Thus when Swiss paleontologist Emil Bächler excavated the Drachenloch Cave between 1917 and 1921, his initial reports of ritual use of bear bones appeared in the Bericht der St. Gallischen naturwissenschaftlichen, probably not available on most newsstands. After a while some unknown science populizers must have picked up on it; perhaps there were some new stories about prehistoric cults slaughtering and dismembering of giant cave bears and the carefully placing their bones in stone “tombs” in caves. By the 1980s, the idea was sufficiently ingrained to make it into novels and films (which were praised for their archaeological accuracy).

Alas, to paraphrase the Red Queen, science moves so quickly you have to run as fast as you can just to keep up with it, and at about the same time that the cave-bear clan was turning up on the best seller lists and in the movies Finnish paleontologist Björn Kurtén had given in to the fate set by his name (“Björn” is Swedish for “Bear”) and wrote The Cave Bear Story, based on a lifetime of research on the titular animal. As it turns out, the supposed “tombs” in the Drachenloch were natural rock formations and there’s no evidence for ritual interaction between Pleistocene humans and Pleistocene cave bears (well, almost none). But there’s a lot of other interesting stuff.

For one thing, “cave” as applied to most Pleistocene mammals – “cave” lion, “cave” hyena, “cave” man – is a misnomer. These were lions, hyenas and people that were quite comfortable living anywhere convenient; cave deposits sometime preserved their bones and may have provided shelter or dens now and then but there was no obligate connection. This turns out not to be the case with cave bears – all the evidence suggests that they really did require caves – remains are very rare outside them. Thus the Linnean name Ursus spelaeus really is descriptive. (To confuse matters, though, there’s a New World animal popularly called the “Florida cave bear” – Tremarctos floridanus – which is no more likely to be found in a cave than any other fossil deposit, is not related to the European cave bear below the family level, and is found from Maryland to California).

True Cave Bears are confined to Europe (at the time Kurtén was writing there were some speculative North African specimens); are most closely related to the Brown Bear (Ursus arctos); are big (the largest brown bears are the size of an average cave bear); seem to have been vegetarians (based on the teeth and the jaw muscle insertions); and may or may not have pug noses (the nostrils open more toward the top of the snout than they do in brown bears, but Kurtén speculates they may just have had more flexible snouts than other bear species). Kurtén explains the cave habitat by hibernation; unlike black bears and brown bears (which prefer to dig their own hibernation dens), cave bears liked caves (perhaps they were just too big to dig their own). Extant bears are most likely to die during hibernation and cave bears were likely the same; this speculation is backed up by skull and tooth measurements, which tend to cluster at yearly intervals (i.e., animals tended to die when they were one years old, or two years old, or three years old, and so on, suggesting they all died at the same season and thus probably during hibernation).

Interestingly enough, there are very few cave bear fossils in England and Ireland; there are plenty of bear fossils in caves, but they are almost all Ursus arctos, not Ursus spelaeus. And the U. arctos in the British Isles are larger than the Continental forms; perhaps they occupied the cave bear niche and found it too hard to dig their own dens. There are a couple of cave paintings of what might be cave bears, but cave paintings of game animals outnumber cave paintings of predators by about 20:1, and although the depictions in question are pretty definitely of bears the quality of the art isn’t high enough to tell the species apart. Getting back to the “ritual” aspect, there is one cave in France that has a life-size clay and rock sculpture of a bear lying on its stomach. When found (1923), there was a skull at the head end, but it was stolen before it could be scientifically examined so it’s unknown if it was Ursus arctos or Ursus spelaeus.

Ironically, given the problems I mentioned with lay people keeping up with science, Dr. Kurtén’s Pleistocene chronology is now considered incorrect. There was once a four-stage series of glacial advances and retreats worked out for Europe (originally) and North America; Weichselian, Saalian, Elsterian, Tiglian in Continental Europe; Würm, Riss, Mindel and Günz in the Alps; and Wisconsinan, Illinoisan, Kansan, and Nebraskan in North America; and Kurtén uses these and the corresponding interglacials throughout the book. As it happens there are now believed to be somewhere between 8 and 16 glacials and interglacials and it’s not clear how they coordinate intercontinentally. The problem was each glacial advance tends to wipe out almost all the evidence of its predecessor. Thus if there was some evidence of previous glaciation under Wisconsinan deposits, it was assumed to be Illinoisan, and so on for Kansan and Nebraskan (or the European equivalents). This was true even if the supposed (for example) Illinoisan deposits were separated by hundreds of kilometers from other Illinoisan deposits. The catch is just because something is fond below the most recent glacial advance doesn’t mean (as previously assumed) that it came from the next most recent glacial advance, or the one before that, and so on.

This book was initially published in 1976; Dr. Kurtén died in 1988; this paperback edition dates from 1995. It’s still a classic work of paleontology and well worth reading. There are numerous scientific illustrations of bear bones, plus maps and graphs. The references are mostly in European languages and, of course, a little dated.
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  setnahkt | Dec 21, 2017 |
I loved this book; it's written by one of the premier researchers on cave bears for a popular audience, and like most pop-sci books written by the researchers doing the actual work, it stays just on the right side of the 'too technical' line. Not only will it tell you everything you could ever want to know about cave bears, in a readable style, but simply by collateral it's also one of the best English-language books I've found to learn about late-Ice-Age European ecology in general. ( )
  melannen | Dec 7, 2010 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0231103611, Paperback)

Complete with brilliant illustrations, this book conveys the astonishing facts about the largest of bears, including the structure, habits, and society of cave bears, their Ice Age environment, sexual and racial variations, and extinction. Kurtin also details the relationship between man and bear-namely the theories surrounding bear-hunting and cave bear cults.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:21:15 -0400)

No one escapes his fate. It might be said that my affair with the cave bear started half a century ago when it was decided to give the child a name that happens to be Swedish for bear. There were some early difficulties in living up to it, but in time it led to the distinction of a mention in the "Authors and Subjects" section of the Journal of Insignificant Research. Still, the real thing began in the early 1950s. Eager to apply newfangled population ideas on fossil mammals, I was casting about for a statistically respectable sample of some fossil mammal?any fossil mammal. The one that happened to be at hand had been collected a hundred years earlier, and had been lying, more or less forgotten, for many decades in the cupboards of the geology department of the University of Helsinki. It was the cave bear: hundreds and hundreds of teeth and bones.… (more)

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