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300,000-year-old markings hint at a rare example of Stone Age clothing: huge cave-bear skins

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An illustration shows a couple of Stone Age humans holding tools and wearing bearskins.An illustration represents Stone Age humans wearing bear skins. A new finding suggests humans skinned cave bears for clothing as early as 300,000 years ago.

Benoît Clarys; Insider

  • 300,000-year-old cave markings in Germany suggest Stone Age humans were wearing clothes.
  • Humans skinned huge cave bears to keep warm, per markings on bones analyzed by experts. 
  • It’s difficult to assess when humans started wearing clothing because furs don’t survive that long.

Humans started wearing clothing as early as the Stone Age, new research suggests.

Tool markings found on the fossilized bones of a 300,000-year-old prehistoric cave bear seem to indicate that humans in Europe skinned the animals, a new study found. 

The markings were found on phalanges, the bones of the bear’s paws, discovered near Schöningen, Germany.

A picture shows the fossilized phalange of a bear resting on a dark pelt.This phalange, a bone from the paw of a cave bear, suggests that humans skinned cave bears and wore their pelts 300,000 years ago.

Volker Minkus

There would be no reason for humans to shave bones of the bear’s hand unless they were skinning the animal for pelts, scientists concluded.

The findings, published December 23 in the peer-reviewed Journal of Human Evolution, provided some of the earliest evidence of humans wearing clothing. 

A reconstructed cave bear skeleton is shown in a museum, propped on a fake rock.Cave bear skeleton is shown in the National Museum of Slovenia in Ljubljana.

VWPics/Universal Images Group/Getty Images

“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,” said Ivo Verheijen in a press release.

Verheijen is a doctoral student from the University of Tübingen who worked on the findings.

Evidence of what people wore in prehistoric times is difficult to come by. That’s because clothing is usually made of organic materials that biodegrade over time and leaves little to no trace over 100,000 years later. 

A photo shows two perpendicular cuts on the bear phalange found in the site near Schöningen, GermanyThese cuts on the cave bear bone suggest that the animal’s pelt was removed.

Volker Minkus

Cuts marks on bones, which survive a lot longer, are “often interpreted in archaeology as an indication of the utilization of meat,” said Verheijen.

“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,” said Verheijen. 

Evidence for a brutal hunt

A illustration shows prehistoric humans on a ledge, ready to toss a boulder on cave bears below.An illustration shows humans fighting a cave bear

Print Collector/Contributor/Getty Images

Because they were skinned, scientists think it’s likely these bears were killed in a hunt.

The hair on the skin quickly becomes unusable after death, according to the press release, so it’s unlikely that humans would have come across a bear that was already dead in the wild and brought back the pelts and the bones. 

Another sign is that all the cave bear bones and teeth found in the archeological site were from adults, which is “usually considered an indication of hunting,” said Verheijen.

This would have been an arduous task. Cave bears could grow up to 2,200 pounds — about the size of a modern Kodiak bear. 

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