The last lions

The Prague Post

A new view of predators that once roamed Central Europe

During the last ice age, 24,000 to 100,000 years ago, Prague looked much like Siberia does today. Reindeers, wooly mammoths, hyenas and cave bears roamed the lands. There were lions as well, though exactly what sort of lions has become a matter of debate.

Almost since paleontologists started digging up bones in Central Europe, it was believed the lions here lived in caves. Scientists assumed this was the case because the first lion bones, skulls and teeth were discovered in caves, including those around Prague and Beroun.

But in a recently published paper, Dr. Cajus Diedrich, a German paleontologist, archeozoologist and geologist, says it’s not true. The reason lion bones were found in caves, he maintains, is because hyenas brought them there.

“Hyenas were more or less overlooked,” explains Diedrich. “No one liked them, so no one really discussed the possibility that lions could have been imported to the caves by other carnivores. Scientists believed lions were the kings, not to be attacked — which is wrong.”

Panthera leo spelaea is the Latin name for the cave lion. But Diedrich says that animal never existed.

“Hyenas scavenged the lions outside and then brought them to the caves,” Diedrich says. If lions inhabited the caves, he argues, there would be more bones (only two to three percent of the bones recovered in caves are from lions), along with other evidence, such as lion fecal matter. The fact that lion bones often bear chew marks adds further weight to the idea they did not die natural deaths.

“The late ice-age lions lived like modern lions,” Diedrich says. “They lived in clans, they gave birth in the open landscape, such as modern ones do, and they hunted all kinds of large animals.”

And some animals, like hyenas, hunted lions.

“The lions were in strong conflicts with hyenas,” Diedrich says. “This is the most important message, because it explains why lion bones are in hyena den caves all over Europe.”

Bones of contention

Diedrich first got the idea for his theory in 2004.

“I was cleaning a basement in a German museum and a hyena skull with jaws looked into my face,” he says. “I was confused, because I knew cave bears well, and also lions a little bit at that time. But it was a hyena skull, found in 1906.”

Tracking down more bones from German caves, Diedrich found more than 3,000 from what he says is one of the most important hyena dens in Central Europe. After those were lion bones that had been chewed. He also spent time at the National Museum in Prague, where, after sorting through 50,000 bones, the picture became clearer.

“I saw that, always in hyena caves, lion bones and even complete skeletons were found,” he says. “I remembered the situation in Germany and click — it was the same coincidence.”

Diedrich has been a bone-lover ever since he began collecting fossils at the age of 8. One thing that separates him from many of his peers is his practice of using present-day animals to help research his ice-age subjects.

“When I have a bone, I compare it to a modern animal,” he says. “Many animals that are extinct in Bohemia today are alive elsewhere — reindeer, wolverines, arctic foxes … though the wooly mammoth is tough.”

Once the bones are identified, Diedrich then needs to determine how old they are. There are three different dating methods, all with limitations. The primary one is radio carbon analysis, which is expensive and can be done only if the bone is less than 40,000 years old. The second way is to compare the sample bone with others found near it, which may reveal whether the period was warm or cold. But, if the animal lived at the end of a major climactic period, the dating could be off by as much as 100,000–200,000 years. The third method is to study the site where the bone was found, with deeper layers of dirt getting progressively older — if they were deposited evenly.

“We have a lion’s skull [near] a reindeer, but it could be one [glacial period] older, and so 100,000 years older than you think,” Diedrich says. “Plus, older excavations were done with pickaxes and shovels, so there was a lot of damage that affects all three methods.”

Snakes and porcupines

Diedrich’s recent paper on lions, published in the Czech Geological Survey’s Bulletin of Geosciences, represents only one facet of his work with Central European fossils.

“I will try to publish at least one paper about the most famous hyena population of Srbsko, and from the same site a paper about the last wolverines of Bohemia,” he says. “I also have some 25-million-year-old snakes and porcupines in the works, one of the biggest discoveries in the Bohemian karst.”

Diedrich plans to present his latest findings at a cave-bear symposium in Brno, south Moravia, this September. Meanwhile, he’s at work on another project: a study of “reptile tracks from pre-dinosaur times in Europe,” with the support of a German foundation, the Deutsche Forschungs-Gemeinschaft.

“These 240-million-year-old reptile ‘track ways’ were produced all over Central Europe in tidal flats,” he says. “No one expected tracks in marine sediments, especially where the daily tide came and went.”

As for the Bohemian lions, Diedrich says they were most likely victims of climate change, which killed off a lot of vegetation. With their food source gone, many animals died, affecting other animals further up the food chain.

The story, Diedrich says, is all in the bones, and he hopes to bring it to a much wider audience.

“I want to bring the bones out of the basements [of museums] and show them in a modern, attractive way,” he says. “I don’t want to do it for the scientific community, but to bring science to a popular level.”