Secret to how prehistoric humans survived winter uncovered

Secret to how prehistoric humans survived winter uncovered

Prehistoric humans living in northern Europe over 300,000 years ago used bear skin to survive the harsh winters, a new study reveals.

The study, published recently in the Journal of Human Evolution, examined traces on bones from the archaeological site of Schöningen in Lower Saxony and found cut marks on the foot and toe bone remains of a cave bear discovered at the stone age site.

Researchers, including those from the University of Tubingen in Germany, say the new findings are one of the oldest evidence of this type in the world from early human ancestors, who were still not likely bearing all the same anatomical features as modern people.

“These newly discovered cut marks are an indication that about 300,000 years ago, people in northern Europe were able to survive in winter thanks in part to warm bear skins,” Tubingen researchers Ivo Verheijen explained.

Studies have found previously that winter coats, especially in extinct cave bears, consist of both long outer hairs that form an airy protective layer and short, dense hairs that are highly insulating during hibernation.

While cut marks on bones are interpreted generally in archaeology as a sign of the utilization of meat, researchers say there is hardly any meat recovered from the hand and foot bones.

“In this case, we can attribute such fine and precise cut marks to the careful stripping of the skin,” the Tubingen researcher said.

Scientists say the old stone age site plays a crucial role in the understanding of early humans and the origin of hunting since “the world’s oldest spears were discovered here.”

Usually, when only adult animals are found at an archaeological site, archaeologists consider it likely evidence of hunting, and at Schöningen they say all the bear bones and teeth belonged to adult individuals.

They say the bear skin must be removed shortly after the animal’s death as the hair is lost and the skin becomes unusable otherwise.

“Since the animal was skinned, it couldn’t have been dead for long at that point,” Mr Verheijen said.

The location of the cut marks on the bears also indicates the animals were exploited for their skins, scientists say, adding that this is likely a key adaptation of early humans to the climate in the north.

The very thin cutmarks in these bear specimens, they say, indicate delicate butchering, and show similarities in butchery patterns to bears found at other stone age sites.

“So animals were not only used for food, but their pelts were also essential for survival in the cold,” Nicholas Conard, another author of the study, said.

“Bear skins have high insulating properties and might have played a role in the adaptations of Middle Pleistocene hominins to the cold and harsh winter conditions of Northwestern Europe,” scientists wrote in the study.