Rather than being gentle giants, new research reveals that Pleistocene cave bears ate both plants and animals and competed for food with the other contemporary large carnivores of the time: hyaenas, lions, wolves, and our own human ancestors.
The study, conducted by an international group of researchers, including Erik Trinkaus, Ph.D., professor of anthropology at Washington University in St. Louis, will appear the week of Jan. 7 in the online version of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Cave bears (Ursus spelaeus) have long fascinated paleontologists and anthropologists, given the abundance of their large skeletal remains in Pleistocene hibernation caves across western Eurasia. For the past 30 years, studies of their bones and teeth, and especially the nitrogen isotopes in their bone protein, have concluded that they were largely vegetarian.
The interpretation of them as vegetarian has evoked an image of gentle giants, feeding on berries and roots. However, new nitrogen isotope data from the Peştera cu Oase in southwestern Romania shows otherwise. Although many of these cave bears appear to have been largely vegetarian, the Oase bears and scattered individuals from other cave sites show that they were sometimes as omnivorous as modern brown bears, including North American Kodiak and grizzly bears.
Richards, M.P., Pacher, M., Stiller, M., Quilès, J., Hofreiter, M., Constantin, S., Zilhão, J., Trinkaus, E. (2008) Isotopic evidence for omnivory among European cave bears: Late Pleistocene Ursus spelaeus from the Peştera cu Oase, Romania. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA (in press).
Prof. Erik Trinkaus
Department of Anthropology
St. Louis MO 63130
tel & fax: +1-314-935-5207
Michael P. Richards
Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology
Deutscher Platz 6
Tel: +49 (0)341-355-0352
Dr. Martina Pacher
Institut für Paläontologie
tel: +43 1-4277-53504
Dr. Silviu Constantin
Institutul de Speologie "Emil Racoviţa"
str. Frumoasă 31
R-010986 Bucuresti 12
Prof. João Zilhão
Department of Archaeology and Anthropology
University of Bristol
43 Woodland Road
Bristol BS8 1UU
tel: +44 (0)117 3311191
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences