New research reveals that prehistoric humans living in northern Europe more than 300,000 years ago used bearskin to survive harsh winters.
The study, recently published in Human Evolution Diaryexamined traces on bones from the archaeological site of Schöningen in Lower Saxony and found incision marks on the foot and toes of cave bear bone remains discovered at a Stone Age site.
Scientists, including those at the University of Tübingen in Germany, say the new findings are one of the oldest such evidence in the world, coming from early human ancestors who probably still did not have the same anatomical features as modern humans.
“These newly discovered incision marks indicate that about 300,000 years ago, people in northern Europe were able to survive the winter, thanks in part to the warm bearskin,” explained Tübingen researcher Ivo Verheijen.
Previous studies have shown that the winter coat, especially of extinct cave bears, consists of both long outer hairs, which create an airy protective layer, and short, dense hairs, which are highly insulating during hibernation.
While cut marks on bones are generally interpreted in archaeology, as a sign of meat use, scientists say that almost no meat is recovered from hand and foot bones.
“In this case, we can attribute such fine and precise cut marks to the careful peeling of the skin,” said the researcher from Tubingen.
Scientists say the old Stone Age site plays a key role in understanding early humans and the origins of hunting, as “the world’s oldest spears have been discovered here.”
Usually, when only adult animals are found at an archaeological site, archaeologists consider this to be probable evidence of hunting, and in Schöningen, they claim that all bear bones and teeth belonged to adults.
They say that the bear skin must be removed soon after the animal dies because the hair is lost and the skin becomes useless.
“Since the animal was flayed, it couldn’t have been dead at that point,” Verheijen said.
The researchers say the location of the cut marks on the bears also indicates that the animals were used to produce pelts, adding that this is likely a key adaptation of early humans to the climate in the north.
They say that the very thin cut marks on these bear specimens indicate gentle carnage and show similarities in carnage patterns to bears found at other Stone Age sites.
“So not only were the animals used for food, but their furs were also essential for surviving in the cold,” said Nicholas Conard, another study author.
“Bear skins have high insulating properties and may have played a role in the adaptation of Middle Pleistocene hominids to the cold and harsh winter conditions of north-western Europe,” the researchers wrote in the study.