Around 32,000 years ago, prehistoric humans might have had to compete with bears to settle into caves, according to a new study.
The study on cave bears also shed light on the age of cave art depicting these enormous animals and why the bears eventually went extinct.
A clue to the mysteries is that from 32,000 to 30,000 years ago, both humans and cave bears lived in two French caves, creating a likely man-versus-bear battle.
“Paleolithic humans used to kill large animals during their hunts, so they were able to kill cave bears,” lead author Celine Bon told Discovery News.
While genetics show cave bears consumed a mostly vegetarian diet, “they might have been violent if they were disturbed during hibernation or if they felt frightened,” added Bon, a researcher in the Institute of Biology and Technology at Saclay, France.
“In such a case, they may have been very dangerous because of their huge size and their impressive claws and canines (teeth),” she said.
For the study, Bon and her colleagues performed radiocarbon dating, mitochondrial DNA analysis and isotope investigations of cave bear remains from Chauvet-Pont d””””Arc and Deux-Ouvertures caves located along the Ardeche River in France.
Both caves feature art on the walls, some of which shows cave bears.
The tests revealed that cave bears inhabited the Ardeche region from around 37,000 to 27,400 years ago, with the oldest samples from Chauvet dating to 29,000 years ago.
That changed when humans first began to use the natural shelters 32,000 to 30,000 years ago. The DNA analysis determined the cave bear population was small and isolated, and that the bears probably died out not long after humans came onto the scene.
“The cave bear population began to decline at the same time that modern humans arrived in Europe. Yet it is unclear if humans are responsible for the cave bear extinction because of competition over space or food resources, or if the extinction of cave bears is due to climatic and/or environmental changes,” said Bon.
“Our data favor both explanations because they show a small cave bear population size in caves occupied by humans,” she added.
Bon and her colleagues hope future studies will put a more firm date on when cave bears went extinct.
The study has been accepted for publication in the Journal of Archaeological Science.