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The European Megafauna

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When modern humans first entered Europe this is the sort of environment that greeted them. The musk-ox is one of the few surviving examples of European megafauna.

When modern humans first entered Europe this is the sort of environment that greeted them. The musk-ox is one of the few surviving examples of European megafauna.

Ice Age Europe

Today, modern Europeans live in paradise. For roughly the last 10,000 years, the Earth has had a mild and stable climate, but this was not always thus. When you look back over the previous 100,000 years Europe was a place of rapid and dramatic climate change, shifting from searing cold to balmy warmth. Occasionally these extreme changes in climate took place in less than a generation. Just over 40,000 years ago, the first modern humans advanced into this unpredictable northern land, and we made it our own.

The Ice age climate rendered vast tracts of the European landscape too cold and dry to permit tree growth. So, in place of forests were vast tracts of grassland and tundra. Plants from these two habitats met, mixed and eventually covered much of eastern, central and western Europe. This unique ‘tundra-steppe’ ecosystem thrived as the glaciers advanced and shrivelled almost continuously.

The tundra steppe was an incredibly rich environment. Although the winters were harsh, the summers were not much cooler than they are today. Unlike the frigid Arctic tundra with its short summers and restricted growing season, Ice age Europe experienced the same long summers that European latitudes do now. Spring and summer boasted plentiful sunlight and warmth, which encouraged plant growth. The lush vegetation which included grasses, herbs and mosses supported a vast menagerie of grazing animals. At times, Europe and central Asia resembled the Serengeti, but instead, this was an Ice age Serengeti.

Just as tundra and grassland plants came together to form the unique tundra-steppe habitat, animals from both the north and south colonised this bountiful new environment. For the first time Arctic creatures like the musk ox, reindeer and wolves mingled with typically African animals like lions and spotted hyenas. The result was an incredibly diverse mix of animals dominated by large herds of herbivorous megafauna, which the carnivores hunted in packs. Our own species, Homo sapiens was just another pack hunting predator added to the mix.

We Weren't Alone: The Discovery of Europe

Unlike Australia or the Americas, the European continent was not some pristine, virgin territory devoid of human life. Small bands of hunter-gatherers had been there for 300,000 years, expanding and contracting their geographical range as the climate either grew warmer or colder. These first people were not modern humans, but instead were offshoots of an ancient human species called Homo heidelbergensis. With short, stocky physiques and broad, flat noses; they were extremely well adapted to the cold. We know them today as the Neanderthals.

For more than 250,000 years the Neanderthals had Europe totally to themselves. But then in the space of 4000-5000 years, a new kind of human entered Europe from the Near East and spread rapidly across the continent. For the first time, Europe had two human species living side by side; our ancestors, Homo sapiens had arrived.

Fully modern humans had settled in the Near East some 100,000 years ago and had successfully travelled eastwards across India and Southeast Asia. Yet for almost 50,000 years, they had stalled at the gates of Europe, there was something that was preventing them from entering. It seems likely that that something was the climate. Our prehistoric ancestors were more heavily built than us, but still possessed the slender, long-limbed bodies typical of warmer climes. Therefore these early modern humans were ill-adapted to the European climate.

Without the stocky Neanderthal physique, Homo sapiens were locked out of the cold north. Some brave and hardy families may have ventured north occasionally, but probably only as fleeting visitors, until a small, quiet revolution took place; a revolution of technology and culture. The technology that allowed our species to move north was a rather simple but ultimately profound one. The simple stitching of hides had probably been around for some time, but now came the innovation of properly tailored clothes. Instead of the archaic cloak draped across the shoulders or a kilt wrapped around the waist, these new people manufactured close-fitting clothes. Garments like trousers, leggings, tunics, parkas, hoods, moccasins, boots and mittens would all have been vital in conquering the tundra steppe. The neatly stitched double seams would keep out the wind, and also the clothing could be layered, with heavy outer garments and lighter inner ones. Furs could be worn with the hair on the inside for extra warmth, or in the more conventional way so as to take advantage of a particular fur’s water repellent properties.

But the invention of sewing wasn’t just about making clothes. The people also manufactured tents made from animal skins with a view to rendering them windproof and waterproof. The transition from mostly relying on caves to erecting tents of animal skins changed the way that our species hunted. The Neanderthals for example simply hunted anything they came across, but now Homo sapiens hunted animals not just for food, but for their skins too.

The deliberate hunting of specific prey spawned special weapons and tactics. The Neanderthals' tool kit just like all humans up to that point was a generic one, with a basic spear serving to kill all sorts of medium to large animals. Homo sapiens instead produced a whole range of different tools in different materials—stone, wood, bone and antler; each one suited to hunting certain animals in a particular way. A large and heavy blade suitable for penetrating mammoth hide for example is unsuitable for tackling smaller prey such as caribou, or to use as a fishing spear, nets were employed to catch small creatures like rabbits. The hunters of the Ice age now decided in advance what kind of animals to hunt and then took the appropriate weapons with them.

Some of the cultural changes that enabled modern humans to thrive in Europe, and later in Central Asia, were already present in the people who had colonised Australia. The tradition of sharing and trading make hunter-gatherers function as a true community that we would recognise, rather than a loose collection of individuals living together. Our species had now hit upon the idea of extending their community beyond that of the immediate group. In the same way that people living in Orkney and Cornwall all consider themselves to be British, the widely scattered groups of modern humans living in Europe may have considered themselves as part of one large trading community.

Homo Sapiens vs. Neanderthals

One of the most intriguing questions in science today is not only what caused the extinction of the Neanderthals? But how did we interact with them? Was there any coexistence or was it just conflict? Undoubtedly the arrival of a new species with similar habits and lifestyles would lead to competition for living space and resources. But was there any open aggression between the two species, as is often imagined by popular media, or was there just a gradual squeezing out, as their numbers declined and ours grew? There must have been some peaceful contact in some areas, as tantalising evidence indicates that the Neanderthals were actually learning some of our tool-making techniques and even attempted to mimic our jewellery; whether they comprehended the significance of the jewellery is up for debate.

It could well be that the Neanderthals’ demise was far less dramatic than we like to think. Their extinction may have come about due to the advance of woodland from the south. It must be noted, that despite the fact they utilised trees as cover while hunting, they were not a purely forest species. As the trees continued to advance some 40,000 years ago, the Neanderthals retreated, unable to survive in the warm woodland environment. It certainly is a coincidence that at this time modern humans were consolidating their hold on Europe. We were able to take advantage of this brief warming of the climate, advancing alongside the woodland as far north as France and southern Poland.

By 34,000 years ago, stone tools crafted by modern humans are found all across Europe, while the Neanderthal tools were by then confined to small regions, mostly the Iberian Peninsula. By the time the climate changed again, to one that favoured the Neanderthals; their former lands were occupied by us. Sadly, they no longer had any space to expand into and by 28,000 years ago the other human species had become extinct.

The Familiar and the Strange: The European Menagerie

The megafauna that still survive in Europe today are very familiar to us: red deer, caribou, bison, brown bears and wolves. Some like the cave lion and cave hyena were really modern species in an Ice age guise. They were basically heftier variants of the African lion and the spotted hyena, their increased body size was a direct adaptation to life in a cold climate. Other wonderful European monsters such as the giant cattle (aurochs), giant deer, cave bears, woolly rhino and woolly mammoth are now totally extinct.

The European climate played a huge role in influencing the distribution of the megafauna across the continent. In warmer phases of the Ice age, forest-dwelling animals colonised and spread right across Europe, following the tree line as it advanced. These included Fallow deer, wild boars, aurochs and leopards, as well hippopotamus and a huge relative of the Asian elephant, the straight-tusked elephant. When the climate turned cold, these warm loving animals drifted southwards, while classic Ice age animals such as reindeer, wild horses, bison, lions, woolly rhino and woolly mammoth arrived to colonise the new tundra-steppe habitat. As the frigid climate increased in severity, the reindeer and bison increased in abundance while woolly rhinos and mammoths decreased, probably because the latter were not well adapted to the harshest conditions. In fact, when the Ice age was its most severe, some large mammals including woolly rhinos and humans seem to have been driven out of northern Europe altogether, abandoning Britain and Germany.

These are wall drawings from the Les Combarelles cave in the Dordogne. The cave bear is the creature in the top right; beneath it is the cave lion.

These are wall drawings from the Les Combarelles cave in the Dordogne. The cave bear is the creature in the top right; beneath it is the cave lion.

Cave Bear

One of the true monsters of the Ice age was the huge cave bear (Ursus spelaeus). It was one of the largest mammalian carnivores ever to stalk the earth, coming close to an Alaskan grizzly bear in size. The cave bear is estimated to have weighed between 880 and 1,500 pounds with the males normally growing to twice the size of the females. To get an idea of their immense bulk, the modern European brown bear usually only gets up to 860Ib’s maximum in weight. The cave bear was most numerous in the west of Europe, although its remains have been found as far east as the Caspian Sea.

The cave bear had a stout body and a large head with massive canine teeth. Cave paintings show it as having short ears and a pig-like face, making it look like a giant and rather dangerous teddy bear. Despite its immense size, examination of its teeth shows us that it was largely vegetarian, even more so than living brown bears. It probably specialised in digging up roots from the deep silt left by glaciers, as modern grizzlies do. The cave bear may have included a little meat in its diet by digging up burrowing animals such as marmots, and by catching spawning salmon and sturgeon.

The bear gets its name from the thousands of bones found in caves. They hibernated in them, and probably gave birth there too. Their footprints have been found on cave floors, their claw marks are on the walls, and in narrow passages, their fur has even polished the rock smooth. One particular cave in Austria contained the remains of up to 50,000 bears indicating that it had been in almost constant use across many generations.

The caves used for hibernation by the bears would have also been good for humans to use as a shelter or for painting. People, cave bears and brown bears undoubtedly sought the same caves, but not necessarily at the same time. Any dispute over ownership would have been dangerous, so people may have wisely avoided caves when they knew bears were in residence.

The Ice Age Woolly Rhino

The woolly rhino (Coelodonta antiquitatis) probably entered Europe some 170,000 years ago, so it was already a long-term resident of the continent by the time modern humans appeared. It inhabited all of Europe except the ice-bound regions of Scandinavia and the warmer regions of southern Italy and southern Greece. The woolly rhino was a grazing animal, similar in habits to the modern white rhino, but was superbly adapted to the colder climates of temperate and tundra-steppe grasslands.

So, this creature was known as the woolly rhino, but how do we know for sure that it was woolly? By good fortune, a number of frozen carcasses have been uncovered with their long shaggy fur still intact in Siberia. There is even a pickled rhino from a salt deposit in Spain. These remains provided a surprise in the shape of the horn, which is a flattened sword shape rather than the typical cone shape. Each horn is worn away on the underside, indicating that the woolly rhino used its horn to sweep away winter snow in order to uncover grass.

Many images of the woolly rhino were painted in caves, such as the one at Chauvet alongside lions, bears and horses. Did the people paint the rhino out of respect of its power in the same way they painted the cave lion or cave bear, or was it hunted? The issue remains unresolved by scientists.

This is a copy of a painting dating from the 16th century drawn by Charles Hamilton Smith. The aurochs still existed in pure form until the 1600s.

This is a copy of a painting dating from the 16th century drawn by Charles Hamilton Smith. The aurochs still existed in pure form until the 1600s.

Aurochs: The Original Cow

The aurochs (Bos primigenius) or wild ox was the ancestor of all European breeds of domestic cattle, and it survived long after the Ice age ended. Our modern cattle are mere pygmies compared to the aurochs, which stood almost seven feet tall at the shoulder. The bulls were much bigger than the cows and had longer horns that pointed forwards rather than sweeping out to the side as we see in modern cattle.

Intriguingly, cave paintings of the aurochs show that the bulls were mostly black, with some possessing a saddle patch of a lighter colour, while the cows and calves were mostly reddish brown in colour. The aurochs likely inhabited forests and open scrubland, so they were more numerous during the warmer phases of the Ice age.

Ancient Greek and Roman writers help shed light on the behaviour of the aurochs by telling us that it was a very aggressive animal with herd members cooperatively using their great size to defend themselves from predators, much as the African buffalo does today to ward off large predators such as lions.

Another Mighty Ice Age Creature: Giant Deer

The giant deer (Megaloceros giganteus) is sometimes referred to as the Irish elk, although it must be noted that it’s not an elk at all, its closest living relative is in actual fact the Fallow deer. The giant deer ranged right across Eurasia from Ireland in the west through to Siberia and China in the east. Its remains have also been found in North Africa. Similar to the woolly rhino it was probably absent from the southern regions of Europe.

The name ‘giant deer’ comes from its hefty size; it weighed up to 1,000 pounds and stood roughly seven feet tall at the shoulder. So in terms of height, it was roughly equal to a moose, but a little more lightly built. Its alternative name, the Irish elk derives from the abundance of bones recovered from Irish peat bogs. Amazingly, giant deer remains outnumber all other mammalian remains found in Ireland, with over a hundred individuals recovered from the Ballybetagh Bog near Dublin alone.

The giant deer is most famed for the size of its antlers. They were broad and flat like a moose’s and typical of most other deer were only possessed by the stags. However, the antlers of the giant stag make the moose seem rather modest. They spanned up to 14 feet and weighed 99 pounds collectively, which was about a seventh of the deer’s total body weight. Detailed studies of its antlers show that they were heavily reinforced for fighting purposes. Some forks were positioned to protect the eyes when the giant deer was engaged in a shoving match with a rival.

The giant deer was depicted in cave paintings by our ancestors, one particular depiction from the Cave of Cougnac in France shows the giant deer with a quite distinctive hump on its shoulders; this mass of bone and muscles was needed to support the heavy neck and head. Its skeleton suggests that it was a fast endurance runner, probably the best the deer family has ever produced. With its tireless, long-legged gait, akin to a moose which itself can attain speeds of 35 mph, the giant deer could wear out predators without becoming exhausted itself.

End Note

That concludes my look at the magnificent Ice age megafauna of Europe. Next, I shall examine some of the giant monsters who evolved alongside our distant ancestors in Africa, before finally analysing why these giant creatures no longer walk the Earth today.

More to follow . . .


James Kenny (author) from Birmingham, England on August 06, 2012:

Thanks for that picture KrisL- I've read similar articles about the possibility that Neanderthals possessed red hair. But the reason I opted for a dark skinned Neanderthal was through reading this article:

Its only theory, but if proven true it means that Europeans have actually been dark skinned for most of their history, it also means that Neanderthals may have had dark skin too.

KrisL from S. Florida on August 06, 2012:

Voted "Awesome."

I like your work so much I have this urge to suggest stuff. :-)

I think the Neanderthal reconstruction you found is awfully dark skinned, as they lived so far North. Here's another one from Wikimedia Commons who looks a bit sunburned, as they might have gotten in the summer.

Also a very cool article you might link to: Red headed woman Neanderthal!

James Kenny (author) from Birmingham, England on August 05, 2012:

Thanks very much Suzette, it does seem rather amazing that such a simple technological innovation had such a major impact on Europe and its animals. Thanks very much for visiting.

Suzette Walker from Taos, NM on August 05, 2012:

Fascinating article and I am fascinated by prehistoric times. I was surprised that the simple technology of sewing seams together to make clothing was one reason homo sapiens were able to enter Europe during the partial ice age. This is such a well researched and well written article. The animals are fascinating also and I enjoyed reading this so much. Voted up!

James Kenny (author) from Birmingham, England on August 05, 2012:

Thanks very much phdast7, really glad you liked it.

Theresa Ast from Atlanta, Georgia on August 05, 2012:

JKenny - This is absolutely fascinating and so very well written. I was familiar with bits and pieces of this history, but had no grasp at all of the larger picture. Great job. Sharing.

James Kenny (author) from Birmingham, England on August 03, 2012:

Thank you Katrine, very nice to hear from you again :)

KatrineDM on August 03, 2012:

James, compliments on writing such wonderful and informative hubs! I always learn something new and amazing. Thank you for sharing.

James Kenny (author) from Birmingham, England on July 31, 2012:

Thanks very much Christopher. I remember seeing a 'giant deer' skeleton at Oxford's Natural History Museum. To me, it just looked like some awesome monster. But like you, I was very small at the time.

Christopher Antony Meade from Gillingham Kent. United Kingdom on July 31, 2012:

I remember visiting the Natural History Museum in Dublin when I was a child. I was really impressed by the skeletons of the "Giant Deer". They looked to be a lot taller than seven foot, but then I was very small at the time. Thanks for a "giant" of a hub. Very impressive.

James Kenny (author) from Birmingham, England on July 30, 2012:

Thanks ttoombs, really glad you liked it. Very much appreciate you stopping by. Thanks again.

ttoombs08 on July 30, 2012:

JK, I have long been fascinated by this stuff. Great job!

James Kenny (author) from Birmingham, England on July 30, 2012:

Thank you Melovy- yes, the sewing discovery amazed me too as I researched it. Imagine what Europe might be like today if we'd never figured it out. Perhaps the Neanderthals would be still around, its always interesting to speculate. Thanks again, really appreciate it.

Yvonne Spence from UK on July 30, 2012:

This is such a good resource for kids (and for their parents) so much interesting information. I've heard of the woolly rhino but not the cave bear or the aurochs.

On a side note, it always amazes me that someone thought up sewing. (As an ex fashion designer it would fascinate me I suppose.) We take such things for granted nowadays, but someone long ago decided to give it a try - and later to weave fabrics. Really those inventions were every bit as astonishing for their era as all our high-tech gadgets are today.

Great hub. Voted up, awesome and interesting.