The cult of the Cave Bear

Cover of NorthThis was first published on the now-retired website, a companion site for the book North: The Rise & Fall of the Polar Cosmos by Gyrus – an epic, animism-infused history of cosmology. Check out more information, or buy from Strange Attractor Press.

A Cave Bear skeleton

Up until the middle of the last Ice Age, around 27,000 years ago, a species of bear known as Ursus spelaeus (‘Cave Bear’) was found across Europe. In the years following the end of the first World War, the palaeontologist Emil Bächler excavated the Drachenloch cave in eastern Switzerland, and found some intriguing skeletal remains of this creature. Skull and leg bones seem to have been arranged in ‘stone boxes’. One skull had a femur penetrating its cheek, an arrangement that Bächler thought only possible if the femur is turned as it is pushed in. Believing there to be no way for these arrangements to be naturally occurring, his conclusion was that he had discovered a very early ‘shrine’ dedicated to this fearsome denizen of Palaeolithic Europe’s caves.1 2

Bächler’s find, and similar subsequent discoveries, have given rise to a widespread and persistent belief in the popular literature on deep history that there existed a Middle Palaeolithic bear cult. Bächler estimated the period during which the cave would have been accessible (i.e. not blocked by Ice Age glaciers) while the Cave Bear existed was well over 100,000 years ago. But Europe then contained none of our own species — it was the domain of Homo neanderthalis. The Drachenloch discovery seemed to be a double-whammy: a profoundly ancient cult, and one practised by Neanderthals at that.3

Not everyone was convinced, however. The eminent French archaeologist André Leroi-Gourhan was dismayed after he published news of his discovery of an apparent ‘circle’ of bear skulls in Saône-et-Loire. The find triggered yet more convictions that the prehistoric bear cult was a secured fact, whereas Leroi-Gourhan himself considered the theory to be archaeology’s ‘most popular playground for unfounded constructions.’4 He, like many more recent authors, thought that natural processes, such as bear movements over many millennia, and periodic flooding of the cave systems, could account for these bear bone finds.

Digging through the literature on this little mystery reveals a familiar pattern. The primary evidence is hard to find, buried in obscure publications and hidden behind often contradictory second-hand reports. And the fervour of the early ‘advocates’ is matched only by the over-reaching cynicism of the later ‘debunkers’. The discovery of the possibility that these arrangements of bear remains were artificial is seized upon as ‘proof’. Later, the fact that it is also possible that the arrangements came about naturally crystallizes unnecessarily into ‘disproof’.

Ina Wunn’s paper on the subject5 is a good example of scepticism which, while it has much to recommend it, seems to be caught in traps of polarisation. She spends an entire paragraph putting forward the objection that since Cave Bears lived in caves, we would expect to find their remains there. But of course, the arguments of Bächler and others hinge not on the placement of the bones in caves, but in their apparently unnatural arrangements there. Wunn then gets to the arguments about how natural events may have created these arrangements; but already, her attempt at thoroughness has unnecessarily created an impression of over-reaching.

Later, Wunn rallies the ‘careful and critical use of ethnographic analogies’. For her, this means pointing out that all contemporary bear-worshipping cultures (such as the Ainu in Japan) place the remains of dead bears within their settlements. Therefore, she reasons, since no bear remains have been found in Neanderthal camps, this proves that the bones in caves weren’t placed there. This seems to be quite the opposite of ‘careful and critical’. Instances of behaviours in contemporary hunter-gatherers merely show us potential Palaeolithic behaviours — they rarely if ever rule out different behaviours.

In the end, as ever, we don’t know. The cult of the bear in the northern hemisphere does appear to be profoundly ancient. William B. Gibbon showed in a 1964 article in the Journal of American Folklore6 that similarities between myths about the seven prominent stars of Ursa Major in Asiatic and North American cultures must predate entry into the Americas across the Bering Strait. The stars are widely seen as a bear in so many different cultures, and in spite of the fact that there is no obvious resemblance, that there must have been a certain inheritance of lore about these important circumpolar markers going back perhaps tens of thousands of years. This lore about these northern stars was almost certainly bound up from its early days with animistic attention to the bear. But exactly how far back this bear worship goes, and whether it was ever the province of our Neanderthal cousins, remains a mystery.