Cave Bears and Neanderthals have been linked together for quite a while. For example, the 1972 edition of Pfeiffers’ Emergence of Man has this to say:
They were respected and worshipped as well as eaten. A mountain cave in eastern Austria contained a rectangular vault holding seven bear skulls all facing the cave’s entrance; while material excavated from Regourdou, another site in southern France, represents the most elaborate bear-cult burial known.
At the other extreme is this statement from Klein in The Human Career:
A Neanderthal “bear-cult” has sometimes been inferred from the apparently patterned arrangements of cave-bear bones in European caves…In these caves, complete bear bones, especially skulls, tend to occur near the walls or near large limestone slabs that have imaginatively attributed to stone chests built by the Neanderthals. However, there are no stone artifacts or cut-marked bones to demonstrate human activity…Almost certainly, the bones accumulated naturally from hibernating bears that occasionally died in the caves…
Klein, in my opinion, is probably correct.
At any rate a new study has been performed of cave-bear remains found at Chauvet Cave in France. The researchers used stable isotope analysis to determine the cave-bears diet:
An isotope analysis of those bones showed that the cave bears were in fact vegetarians and that they died in the cave around 30,000 years ago, the same time the paintings were made.
“The new results confirm that cave bears and humans were not competing for food, as the first ones were vegetarians, whereas the second ones were mostly meat-eaters,” Bocherens said.
“It shows also that some of the bear skeletons were in the cave when the paintings were made,” suggesting humans moved in after the resident bears died.
There is some skepticism of the study:
“The only direct link between the art and bears are the bear-claw marks superimposed on some of the art,” he said.
“But we obviously do not know the time at which these bears scratched the walls.”
In terms of the chemistry and dietary interpretations, the work is robust, Pettitt said.
“But we have to remember that the number of bears actually dated represent a small subsample of all the bears at the cave,” he said.
“So this only gives us a glimpse that bears were in the cave as early as 38,000 years [ago] and as late as 27,000 years [ago]. Given their abundance, they were probably around before and or after this, too.”
Future research will focus on:
For the future, the researchers hope to expand their work to include genetic studies of the cave bear bones. The scientists could perhaps link their findings to other prehistoric sites with evidence of late Neandertals and early modern humans.
“One goal is to document the possible impact of changes in human behavior on cave bears around this time,” Bocherens said.
Below is a picture of a cave bear skeleton…