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Genetic research accuses people of prehistoric bear death | News | DW

Researchers said Thursday that the decline of a prominent prehistoric cave bear coincided with the arrival of Homo sapiens in Eastern Europe.

The research published in Scientific reports journal, blaming human activities rather than cooling off in the ice age for extinction of the strictly herbaceous species.

Researchers reconstructed the cave bear's past population dynamics by retrieving data from 59 bear caves found at 14 sites in France, Italy, Poland, Serbia, Spain and Switzerland.

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The data revealed that the cave bear population experienced a decline of approx. 50,000 years ago, the same time when Homo sapiens arrived in Europe. A large population decline began for approx. 40,000 years ago when Homo sapiens spread across the continent. The cave bear was eventually eradicated about 20,000 years ago.

The cave bear, whose scientific name is Ursus spelaeus, inhabited Europe during the Ice Age along with animals such as the cave lion, woolly rhinos, woolly mammoth and steppe bison. The bear was as large as a polar bear and was depicted in prehistoric cave paintings.

Climate cooling or human action?

"There is more and more evidence that modern humans have played a crucial role in the decline and extinction of large mammals when they first spread around the planet, began about 50,000 years ago," said biologist Herve Bocherens of the University of Tübingen in Germany.

"This happened not only by chasing these mammals for extinction, but by causing demographic decline of keystone species, such as very large herbivores that led to the collapse of ecosystems and a cascade of further extinctions," Bocherens added.

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Scientists have long debated whether the cave extinction of the cave bear was a result of cooled climate that reduced vegetation essential to their diet or human hunting and encroaching on bear caves. But paleogeneticist Verena Schuenemann of the University of Zurich said the latest study discovered that the cave in the bear fall was preceded by climate cooling associated with the recent ice age.

Schuenemann said the bear population had remained stable for two long cold stretches and several other cooling periods.

Fresh evidence

The study claims that the arrival of Homo sapiens, which originated in Africa more than 300,000 years ago and later spread throughout the world, presaged the downfall of several species throughout Eurasia, America and Australia.

Scientists say that before the arrival of Homo sapiens, the cavern population remained robust even though it shared its territory with another human species, the Neanderthals, which were also exterminated after Homo sapiens invaded Eurasia.

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