According to the International Rhino Foundation: “The Woolly Rhino (Coelodonta antiquitatis) first appeared some 350,000 years ago and may have survived until as recently as 10,000 years ago. Their fossils are fairly common and have been discovered throughout Europe and Asia. Well-preserved remains have been discovered frozen in ice and buried in oil-saturated soils. In Ukraine, a complete carcass of a female Woolly Rhino was discovered buried in the mud. The combination of oil and salt prevented the remains from decomposing, allowing the soft tissues to remain intact. [Source: International Rhino Foundation \=]

“A herbivore who grazed on grass, shrubby sprouts, forbs (small herbaceous plants), lichens and mosses. Woolly Rhinos had a broad front lip. The horns of Coelodonta antiquitatis fossils show abrasion marks that were presumably caused by to and fro motion of the head as it pushed the snow away while searching for grass. The Woolly Rhino lived just as their recent relatives do, alone or in very small family groups. Coelodonta antiquitatis were hunted by early humans and they were depicted on the walls of caves in France 30,000 years ago. The Sumatran rhino, Dicerorhinus sumatrensis, is the last representative of the Woolly Rhino family. \=\

“Once common throughout Northern Europe and Eastern Asia (especially in what is now Russia). Coelodonta antiquitatis' range extended from South Korea to Scotland to Spain. In the latter part of the Pleistocene Period, the Woolly Rhino may have had the largest range of any known rhinoceros, living or extinct. The Woolly Rhinos frequently inhabited the same areas as Woolly Mammoths, however they apparently never managed to move across the Bering Strait (Bering Land Bridge) and extend their range into North America. \=\

Websites and Resources on Hominins and Human Origins: Smithsonian Human Origins Program humanorigins.si.edu ; Institute of Human Origins iho.asu.edu ; Becoming Human University of Arizona site becominghuman.org ; Talk Origins Index talkorigins.org/origins ; Last updated 2006. Hall of Human Origins American Museum of Natural History amnh.org/exhibitions ; Wikipedia article on Human Evolution Wikipedia ; Human Evolution Images evolution-textbook.org; Hominin Species talkorigins.org ; Paleoanthropology Links talkorigins.org ; Britannica Human Evolution britannica.com ; Human Evolution handprint.com ; National Geographic Map of Human Migrations genographic.nationalgeographic.com ; Humin Origins Washington State University wsu.edu/gened/learn-modules ; University of California Museum of Anthropology ucmp.berkeley.edu; BBC The evolution of man" bbc.co.uk/sn/prehistoric_life; "Bones, Stones and Genes: The Origin of Modern Humans" (Video lecture series). Howard Hughes Medical Institute.; Human Evolution Timeline ArchaeologyInfo.com ; Walking with Cavemen (BBC) bbc.co.uk/sn/prehistoric_life ; PBS Evolution: Humans pbs.org/wgbh/evolution/humans; PBS: Human Evolution Library www.pbs.org/wgbh/evolution/library; Human Evolution: you try it, from PBS pbs.org/wgbh/aso/tryit/evolution; John Hawks' Anthropology Weblog johnhawks.net/ ; New Scientist: Human Evolution newscientist.com/article-topic/human-evolution; Fossil Sites and Organizations: The Paleoanthropology Society paleoanthro.org; Institute of Human Origins (Don Johanson's organization) iho.asu.edu/; The Leakey Foundation leakeyfoundation.org; The Stone Age Institute stoneageinstitute.org; The Bradshaw Foundation bradshawfoundation.com ; Turkana Basin Institute turkanabasin.org; Koobi Fora Research Project kfrp.com; Maropeng Cradle of Humankind, South Africa maropeng.co.za ; Blombus Cave Project web.archive.org/web; Journals: Journal of Human Evolution journals.elsevier.com/; American Journal of Physical Anthropology onlinelibrary.wiley.com; Evolutionary Anthropology onlinelibrary.wiley.com; Comptes Rendus Palevol journals.elsevier.com/ ; PaleoAnthropology paleoanthro.org.

Woolly Rhino Originated From Tibet?

Fossil evidence indicates that woolly rhinos, may have evolved in the frigid highlands of the Tibetan Plateau more than 1 million years before global cooling allowed their descendants to spread throughout much of northern Eurasia. It had previously been that cold-adapted creatures such as mammoths and whooly rhinos evolved in the Arctic. Xiaoming Wang, a vertebrate paleontologist at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County in California, is researching where mammoths, mastodons, saber-toothed cats and woolly rhinos originally evolved, which is still largely a mystery [Source: Sid Perkins, Science, September 1, 2011 ^|^]

Sid Perkins wrote in Science: “In the new study, Wang and colleagues uncovered a variety of fossils—including a skull, a jawbone, and a couple of neck vertebrae in the Himalayan foothills along the southwest Tibetan Plateau. The plateau is often called "the roof of the world" because its 2.5-million-square-kilometer area—the largest and tallest in the world—has an average elevation that exceeds 4500 meters (14,800 feet). Based on the age of the sediments surrounding the fossils, which was estimated using the magnetic characteristics of the rock as well as the other fossils entombed therein, the researchers say the fossils belong to a new species of woolly rhino that roamed the region about 3.7 million years ago. The team has dubbed the rhino, which was about the size of its modern kin but covered with shaggy fur to help preserve its body heat, Coelodonta thibetana, or "the pit-toothed creature from Tibet." ^|^

“Previous studies suggested that, at the time, the global average temperatures were as much as 3°C warmer than they are today. Also, Wang says, northern continents weren't covered with massive ice sheets that characterized the ice ages. Despite the warmth of the era, however, the Tibetan Plateau was about as cold and snowy as it is today, with an average temperature around 0°C and wintertime extremes sometimes dropping below -10°C. ^|^

“The woolly rhino had several features that helped it survive the harsh Tibetan environment, the team reports online in Science. For example, the size and shape of the bony bump where the rhino's horn attached to its snout suggests that the horn had a flattened cross section, not a conical one like modern rhinos. That flattened profile, a shape also seen in later species of woolly rhinos, allowed the horn to be used to sweep snow from the ground and uncover low-growing vegetation. When the ice ages came along and harsh conditions spread to lower altitudes, C. thibetana and its descendants were evolutionarily primed to take advantage and expand across northern Eurasia, Wang and his colleagues contend. ^|^

“The researchers also unearthed the fossils of more than two dozen other species at the Tibetan field site, including extinct species such as three-toed horses and modern-day species such as the snow leopard and the chiru, also known as the Tibetan antelope. Because several of these creatures were known across a larger area during the recent ice ages, the researchers suggest that the Tibetan Plateau may have been their evolutionary cradle. Nevertheless, Wang notes, none of the fossils unearthed represent the woolly mammoths or mastodons so familiar to many, which suggests that those creatures may have evolved elsewhere. ^|^

“The new fossils "are quite fantastic," says Pierre-Olivier Antoine, a paleomammologist at the University of Montpellier 2 in France. A Tibetan origin of the woolly rhino "is quite surprising," he adds. Previously, scientists had suspected that the closest kin of woolly rhinos lived on the southern slopes of the Himalayas in Pakistan and India, but the newly described C. thibetana is obviously a much closer relative, he says. ^|^

“Scientists have previously suggested that many Ice Age-adapted mammals arose in the high Arctic, especially in the harsh conditions of a land bridge that joined northeastern Asia to what is now Alaska during ice ages, when sea levels were as much as 100 meters or so lower than they are today. However, "[a]n origin for the woolly rhino in Tibet, where high altitude imposed a regime of cold climate and open vegetation, makes perfect sense," says Adrian Lister, a vertebrate paleontologist at the Natural History Museum in London. "We know from today's species that they move up and down mountains in accordance with climate change and that many are now moving upwards to escape global warming," he notes. "It seems perfectly reasonable that a similar thing could have happened in reverse, over longer time scales, in the past."” ^|^

Woolly Rhinos Didn’t Go to America Like Mammoths

Sumatran rhino, a woolly rhino relative

The woolly rhino lived primarily in Europe and Siberia. One of the greatest mysteries surrounding it is why it didn't cross the Bering Bridge, the land bridge between northeastern Russia and Alaska, and take up residence in North America. Sarah Gibbens of National Geographic wrote: “Woolly mammoths, steppe bison, reindeer, and other species are thought to have crossed it during the Pleistocene. But what particular adaptations woolly rhinos had to survive in this climate are also unclear. [Source: Sarah Gibbens, National Geographic January 24, 2018]

“Scientist have a few theories as to why the woolly rhino went extinct but no solid explanation. One study published in August 2017 suggested they may have gone extinct from a genetic abnormality. A look at their fossilized remains found many contain a cervical neck rib, a condition associated with birth defects. The study suggested that inbreeding could have therefore factored into their decline.”

Olga Potapova is a scientist at The Mammoth Site of Hot Springs South Dakota, a preservation and research organization, referred to two theories as to why the species went extinct. The first is that climactic changes impacted the feeding habitats of herbivores, which in turn led to the extinction of larger carnivores like cave lions and saber-tooth cats. The second theory is that they were killed off by people. "Recent research of the ancient DNA of many extinct herbivores showed that populations declined and their genetic pool degenerated well before human appearances on these two continents," she says, suggesting the former theory is more likely.

Cave Bears

The cave bear was a European species that coexisted with early humans for about 20,000 years before dying out about 25,000 years ago. Both the word "cave" and the scientific name spelaeus are used because fossils of this species were mostly found in caves. This reflects the views of experts that cave bears may have spent more time in caves than the brown bear, which uses caves only for hibernation. [Source: Wikipedia]

Andrew Curry wrote in Smithsonian Magazine: “People have been excavating cave bear remains for hundreds of years—in the Middle Ages, the massive skulls were attributed to dragons—but the past decade has seen a burst of discoveries about how the bears lived and why they went extinct. An abundance of bear bones has been found from Spain to Romania in caves where the animals once hibernated. “Caves are good places to preserve bones, and cave bears had the good sense to die there,” Hervé Bocherens, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Tübingen, Germany, says [Source: Andrew Curry, Smithsonian Magazine, December 2010]

“Along with mammoths, lions and woolly rhinos, cave bears (Ursus spelaeus) were once among Europe’s most impressive creatures. Males weighed up to 1,500 pounds, 50 percent more than the largest modern grizzlies. Cave bears had wider heads than today’s bears, and powerful shoulders and forelimbs.” Their skeletons are similar to those of modern brown bears.

“Cave bears evolved in Europe more than 100,000 years ago. Initially they shared the continent with Neanderthals. For a time, archaeologists thought Neanderthals worshiped the bears, or even shared caves with them. The idea was popularized by Jean Auel’s 1980 novel, The Clan of the Cave Bear, but has since been rejected by researchers. Prehistoric humans painted images of the animals on cave walls and carved their likeness in fragments of mammoth tusk

Cave Bear Diet and Mortality

cave bear

Cave bear teeth were very large and show greater wear than most modern bear species, suggesting a diet of tough materials. However, tubers and other gritty food, which cause distinctive tooth wear in modern brown bears, do not appear to have constituted a major part of cave bears' diets on the basis of dental microwear analysis. [Source: Wikipedia +]

There is some evidence points of the occasional inclusion of animal protein in cave bear diets. For example, toothmarks on cave bear remains in areas where cave bears are the only recorded potential carnivores suggests occasional cannibalistic scavenging, possibly on individuals that died during hibernation, and dental microwear analysis indicates the cave bear may have fed on a greater quantity of bone than its contemporary, the smaller Eurasian brown bear. Additionally, cave bear remains from Pe tera cu Oase in the southwestern tip of the Romanian part of the Carpathian Mountains had elevated levels of nitrogen-15 in their bones, indicative of omnivorous diets, although the values are within the range of those found for the strictly herbivorous mammoth.

Death during hibernation was a common end for cave bears, mainly befalling specimens that failed ecologically during the summer season through inexperience, sickness or old age. Some cave bear bones show signs of numerous ailments, including spinal fusion, bone tumours, cavities, tooth resorption, necrosis (particularly in younger specimens), osteomyelitis, periostitis, rickets and kidney stones. Male cave bear skeletons have been found with broken bacula, probably due to fighting during the breeding season.

Paleontologists doubt adult cave bears had any natural predators, save for pack-hunting wolves and cave hyenas, which would probably have attacked sick or infirm specimens. Cave hyenas are thought to be responsible for the disarticulation and destruction of some cave bear skeletons. Such large carcasses were an optimal food resource for the hyenas, especially at the end of the winter, when food was scarce. The presence of fully articulated adult cave lion skeletons, deep in cave bear dens, indicates the lions may have occasionally entered dens to prey on hibernating cave bears, with some dying in the attempt.

Cave Bears and Humans

Andrew Curry wrote in Smithsonian Magazine: “ The relationship between humans and cave bears has been mysterious. Were humans prey for the bears, or predators? Were bears objects of worship or fear? [Source: Andrew Curry, Smithsonian Magazine, December 2010]

“Modern humans arrived in Europe about 40,000 years ago and were soon aware of the bears. The walls of France’s Chauvet cave, occupied 32,000 years ago, are painted with lions, hyenas and bears—perhaps the oldest paintings in the world. The artists weren’t the cave’s only occupants: the floor is covered with 150 cave bear skeletons, and its soft clay still holds paw prints as well as indentations where bears apparently slept. Most dramatically, a cave bear skull was perched on a stone slab in the center of one chamber, placed deliberately by some long-gone cave inhabitant with opposable thumbs. “There’s no way to tell if it was just curiosity that made someone put a skull on the rock or if it had religious significance,” says Bocherens.

“Another discovery, hundreds of miles to the east of Chauvet, would shed light on the relationship between cave bears and humans. The Swabian Jura is a limestone plateau in southwestern Germany that is riddled with caves. A short walk from the village of Schelklingen takes visitors to the foot of a limestone cliff in the Ach Valley.” In 2000 at Hohle Fels cave there “University of Tübingen paleobiologist Susanne Münzel unearthed a bear vertebra with a tiny triangular piece of flint embedded in it. The stone was likely a broken spear point, hard evidence of a successful bear hunt 29,000 years ago. Münzel also found bear bones that had clearly been scratched and scraped by stone tools. Cut marks on skulls and leg bones showed that the bears had been skinned and their flesh cut away. “There must have been cave bear hunting, otherwise you wouldn’t find meat cut off the bone,” she says. Many of the bones were from baby bears, perhaps caught while hibernating.

Bear Cults

Chauvet cave bear "shrine"

A number of archeologists propose that Middle Paleolithic societies — including the Neanderthals — may have practiced the earliest form of totemism or animal worship. Based on archeological evidence from Middle Paleolithic caves, Emil Bächler has argued a Neanderthal bear-cult was widespread. Animal cults in the following Upper Paleolithic period — such as the bear cult — may have had their origins in these hypothetical Middle Paleolithic animal cults. [Source: Wikipedia +]

Animal worship during the Upper Paleolithic intertwined with hunting rites. For instance, archeological evidence from art and bear remains reveals that the bear cult apparently had involved a type of sacrificial bear ceremonialism in which a bear was shot with arrows and then was finished off by a shot in the lungs and ritualistically buried near a clay bear statue covered by a bear fur, with the skull and the body of the bear buried separately. +

The Drachenloch cave in Switzerland, excavated by Emil Bächler between 1917 and 1923, uncovered more than 30,000 cave bear skeletons and a stone chest or cist consisting of a low wall built from limestone slabs near a cave wall with a number of bear skulls inside it. Also, a cave bear skull was found with a femur bone from another bear stuck inside it. Some scholars speculated that this was evidence of: 1) prehistoric human religious rites involving the cave bear; 2) a hunting ritual involving cave bears or 3) the skulls were kept as trophies. In Archaeology, Religion, Ritual (2004), archaeologist Timothy Insoll was skeptical about the Drachenloch, writing that the evidence for religious practices involving cave bears in this time period is "far from convincing". +

In Regourdou, southern France, a rectangular pit contained the remains of at least twenty bears, covered by a massive stone slab. The remains of a Neanderthal lay nearby in another stone pit, with various objects, including a bear humerus, a scraper, a core, and some flakes, which were interpreted as grave offerings. A deep chamber of Basura Cave in Savona, Italy, is thought to be related to cave bear worship. There a vaguely bear-shaped stalagmite is surrounded by clay pellets. Bear bones scattered on the floor suggests this was likely to have had some sort of ritual purpose by Neanderthals. +

David Charles Wright-Carr of the Universidad de Guanajuato wrote in a posting on Researchgate: An article by Wunn (2001) argues strongly against cave bear worship in Early and Middle Paleolithic Europe, but it is important to note that these periods predate the presence of anatomically modern Homo sapiens in this region, and Wunn's discussion concerns whether or not Homo sapiens neanderthalensis (or Homo neanderthalensis, if you prefer) worshiped these animals. From the Upper Paleolithic period (ca. 50,000-10,000 years ago), when modern humans (Homo sapiens sapiens) lived in Europe, there is evidence to support the notion of a cave bear cult. The most intriguing data are from Chauvet Cave in France, where in addition to painted depictions of cave bears, there is a chamber where the skull of a cave bear (Ursus spelaeus) was placed prominently on a block of stone in the center of this space, suggesting some sort of ritual activity.

“One of the oldest sculptures from Upper Paleolithic Europe is an ivory figurine from the Hohlenstein-Stadel Cave in Germany, dated at ca. 40,000 years ago. It is usually interpreted as a lion-man (or lion-woman), a hybrid feline-human creature. I think that it could just as well have represented a cave bear (Ursus spelaeus) or some other species of the same genus. Compare the figurine with the standing skeleton of a juvenile cave bear, and the artist's representation of an adult cave bear. These animals inhabited the sacred caves where humans painted the walls and deposited sculptural works. The bears' claw marks sometimes appear under, over, or combined with the marks made by people. It would have been natural for the bears to have acquired a profound symbolic significance in the minds of the humans that shared the landscape with them. One of the oldest musical instruments known is a flute made from the femur of a juvenile cave bear, from around 40,000 years ago, found in a cave in Slovenia. Thus a modified body part of this species may have served as a vehicle for the aesthetic language we call music.”

Cave Bear Extinction

cave bear bones

Andrew Curry wrote in Smithsonian Magazine: “Cave bears disappeared not long after humans spread throughout Europe. Could hunting have led to the bears’ extinction? That’s not likely, according to Washington University at St. Louis anthropologist Erik Trinkaus. “People living in the late Pleistocene weren’t stupid,” he says. “They spent an awful lot of time avoiding being eaten, and one of the ways to do that is to stay away from big bears.” If hunting was an isolated event, as he argues, there must be another reason the bears died out. [Source: Andrew Curry, Smithsonian Magazine, December 2010]

“Hervé Bocherens’ test tubes may hold the clues. Running his white powder through a mass spectrometer, he identifies different isotopes, or chemical forms, of elements such as carbon and nitrogen that reflect what the bears were eating and how quickly they grew. After studying hundreds of bones from dozens of sites in Europe, Bocherens has found that cave bears mainly ate plants.

“That would have made the bears particularly vulnerable to the last ice age, which began around 30,000 years ago. The prolonged cold period shortened or eliminated growing seasons and changed the distributions of plant species across Europe. Cave bears began to move from their old territories, according to a DNA analysis led by researchers at the Max Planck Institute in Leipzig of teeth found near the Danube River. The cave bear population there was relatively stable for perhaps 100,000 years, with the same genetic patterns showing up generation after generation. But about 28,000 years ago, newcomers with different DNA patterns arrived—a possible sign of hungry bears suddenly on the move.

“But climate change can’t be solely to blame for the bears’ extinction. According to the latest DNA study, a Max Planck Institute collaboration including Bocherens, Münzel and Trinkaus, cave bear populations began a long, slow decline 50,000 years ago—well before the last ice age began. The study does support a different explanation for the cave bear’s demise. As cavemen—Neanderthals and then a growing population of modern humans—moved into the caves of Europe, cave bears had fewer safe places to hibernate. An acute housing shortage may have been the final blow for these magnificent beasts”.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: National Geographic, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, Nature, Scientific American. Live Science, Discover magazine, Discovery News, Ancient Foods ancientfoods.wordpress.com ; Times of London, Natural History magazine, Archaeology magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, BBC, The Guardian, Reuters, AP, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, World Religions edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); History of Warfare by John Keegan (Vintage Books); History of Art by H.W. Janson (Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.), Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated September 2018

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