Predatory Animals Ruled The Prehistoric Caves Some 300,000 Years Ago

New research shows ancient tribes shared the cave network in Siberia with predatory animals including hyena, wolves and even bears.
Donna Fuscaldo
Prehistoric cave art DimaBerkut/iStock

Ancient tribes had it rough some 300,000 years ago as they were forced to compete with carnivores for shelter in the famous Denisova Cave complex located in the Altai Mountains in Siberia. 

Using modern geoarchaeological tools and techniques a team of Russian and Australian scientists led by Dr. Mike Morley, a Flinders University ARC Future Fellow, discovered new details about what daily life was like for ancient tribes living in what is now considered one of the most important sites to study human evolution. 


Fossil animal droppings, bone fragments cover the grounds of the caves

The researchers found fossil animal droppings, charcoal from long-ago fires and bone fragments that cover the grounds of the caves. According to the scientists, which published their findings in journal Scientific Reports, large carnivores including hyena, wolves and bears and well as three of the early nomadic human groups including Denisovans, Neanderthals, and early Homo sapiens used the caves for shelter. 

"These hominin groups and large carnivores such as hyenas and wolves left a wealth of microscopic traces that illuminate the use of the cave over the last three glacial-interglacial cycles," said Morley in a press release announcing the research. "Our results complement previous work by some of our colleagues at the site that has identified ancient DNA in the same dirt, belonging to Neanderthals and a previously unknown human group, the Denisovans, as well as a wide range of other animals."

Animals ruled the caves

Based on their work, the researchers concluded that it was the animals, not the early tribes, that ruled in the caves. To come to that determination the team relied on microscopic studies of 3-4 metres of sediment that remained in the cave network, including fossil droppings of many of the predatory animals that were immortalized in the rock art found in the caves. The study of the sediment blocks from the caves have provided the scientists with information that wasn't gleaned from earlier studies of DNA, stone tools and animal and plant remains. 

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"Using microscopic analyses, our latest study shows sporadic hominin visits, illustrated by traces of the use of fire such as miniscule fragments, but with continuous use of the site by cave-dwelling carnivores such as hyenas and wolves," said Co-author of the new research, University of Wollongong Distinguished Professor Richard (Bert) Roberts. "Fossil droppings (coprolites) indicate the persistent presence of non-human cave dwellers, which are very unlikely to have co-habited with humans using the cave for shelter." 

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