Humans have been staying warm with bear skin for over 300,000 years - study

This important fact gives researchers insight into the survival of ancient species and ancient humans alike.

Cut of a bear bone perched atop bear skin, which has been used for hundreds of thousands of years for warmth. (photo credit: WIKIMEDIA)
Cut of a bear bone perched atop bear skin, which has been used for hundreds of thousands of years for warmth.
(photo credit: WIKIMEDIA)

Human use of bear skin during the winter months is a timeless trend that dates back to at least 300,000 years ago, a new study has shown.

The new peer-reviewed study published in the Journal of Human Evolution examines specific and newly-discovered cut marks found on the fossilized remains of a cave bear, which suggests that these animals were strategically dissected.

Dating back to the Lower Paleolithic period (at least 200,000 years ago, not to surpass 1.5 million years), fossils found at an archaeological site in Lower Saxony, Germany mark one of the oldest examples of this method of strategic dissection worldwide.

Tübingen researcher Ivo Verheijen suggested that since the carcass of the bear was used for more uses than just meat, there was a great possibility that a bear's body could provide far more than a set of meals. "Cut marks on bones are often interpreted in archaeology as an indication of the utilization of meat," Verheijen stated.

"But there is hardly any meat to be recovered from hand and foot bones. In this case, we can attribute such fine and precise cut marks to the careful stripping of the skin. 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," the researcher, a doctoral student in the Schöningen research project, stated.

 Bears in the wild (credit: WIKIMEDIA) Bears in the wild (credit: WIKIMEDIA)

The makeup of a bear's winter coat consisted of different long outer hairs which formed a protective layer in addition to a series of shorter hairs as an airy protective layer. This would provide better isolation for bears through hibernation, which required a highly insulated coat.

Hunters through the ages

It is believed that some of the oldest spears in the world were used to hunt bears, and they were found near this educational institute. "If only adult animals are found at an archaeological site, this is usually considered an indication of hunting – at Schöningen, all the bear bones and teeth belonged to adult individuals." This adds to the researchers' hypotheses that bears were a target for hunters in the region.

The researchers added that bear skin must be removed in an urgent manner, shortly after the animal's death. If not, hair is lost and the skin becomes unusable. "Since the animal was skinned, it couldn't have been dead for long at that point," Verheijen explains.

Tübingen Professor Nicholas Conard, head of the Schöningen research project, shared that these discoveries offer a new lens into archaeological history and help grasp a better understanding of ancient humankind.

"The location of the cut marks indicates that the cave bears were also exploited for their skins. So, animals were not only used for food, but their pelts were also essential for survival in the cold," Conard said. The use of bear skins is likely a crucial discovery of early humans, in order to help prepare for the climate in the north.