The lion diet

National Geographic News a couple of weeks ago ran a story about lion-eating at Gran Dolina (“Prehistoric Europeans Hunted, Ate Lion?”):

Cut marks on the lion bones allowed the team to reconstruct how the Neanderthal ancestors skinned and defleshed the lion, as well as broke its bones to remove marrow.

That’s the basic idea. The article goes on to get various archaeologists to speculate on what it means for an early human to cut up a lion. You know, were they desperate? Was the lion already dead when they found it? Did they like to eat lions? Yada yada yada. It would be more instructive to compare across the Pleistocene the number of lions with cutmarks (rare) to the number of lions that look like they were eaten by hyenas (many). This specimen is a data point, but one among many.

The research paper by Ruth Blasco and colleagues is in the online early section of the Journal of Archaeological Science. It’s a broader paper that discusses the lion remains in the context of the zooarchaeology of the site. The fauna date to MIS 9, which is around 300,000 years ago. The (one) lion is not the only carnivore – there are brown bear, fox, and wolf bones also – but only the lion has substantial evidence of human activity. Most of the fauna are large herbivores, with marrow-bearing elements predominantly brought in by humans and broken up. There is some evidence of carnivore activity, and the lion in particular seems to have been chewed on by a fox. Some of the cutmarks correspond to removal of viscera.

What to make of it? The people were hungry, that’s not terribly surprising. Whether they killed the lion or scavenged it is unclear. Those are the limits of Paleolithic forensics.

I’m a bit surprised that neither the research paper nor the press article make note of the hypervitaminosis A explanation for the bone condition suffered by KNM-ER 1808. Alan Walker had claimed that the excess of vitamin A came from eating carnivore liver, and made a big story out of the hunting ability of early Homo on that basis. Later, Bruce Rothschild attributed the KNM-ER 1808 bone condition to yaws. I guess the lion-liver-eating story has died for good.


Blasco R, Rosell J, Arsuaga JL, Bermúdez de Castro JM, Carbonell E. 2010. The hunted hunter: the capture of a lion (Panthera leo fossilis) at the Gran Dolina site, Sierra de Atapuerca, Spain. J Archaeol Sci 37:2051-2060. doi:10.1016/j.jas.2010.03.010