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The Cave Lions

Updated on August 18, 2018
Wesman Todd Shaw profile image

Wesman Todd Shaw has 7 cats at present, he loves cats all, both large and small.

The Cave Lion

Nice drawing of an extinct and very large cat.
Nice drawing of an extinct and very large cat. | Source

Humans evolved during the Pleistocene - so humanity was once familiar with cave lions

Humanity itself developed during the Pleistocene epoch. It was then, during that time ranging from roughly three million years ago until just eleven thousand years ago that humankind broke from its more primitive fore-bearers and became man. Many theories describe our becoming, and among them are the theory that our earlier forms became our current forms for our learning to kill and cook meat. The high protein diet allowed our brains to develop, and here we are.

We were hardly the only meat eaters, and perhaps we learned what food was from other Earthlings. Surely others seemed wiser, stronger, much more powerful. We admired them. We learned. It is entirely possible pre-humans learned to eat meat after seeing one of their own being eaten. I'd say it is probable the general idea came from there. Perhaps eating meat is what gave us the knowledge of good and evil, as it gave us the big brains.

So the humans of the Pleistocene epoch shared their world with massive beasts, megafauna, they're now called. Bigger predators and larger prey than we now know roamed among us. Surely we weren't the favored meals of cave lions, but then again an aging or injured cave lion also needs to eat. Surely some of us got made a meal of. Surely we learned from it, started learning weaponry.

Prehistoric drawings of cave lions

These came from a cave in Siberia.
These came from a cave in Siberia. | Source

Cave lions once ranged from North America to Europe

The cave lions were far ranging cats. They lived in North America, they lived in Europe and Asia.The cave painting above was found in Siberia, and much more exciting still, a frozen solid cave lion cub was found in another place in Siberia. The cave painting shows us that humans observed the lions going about their business in groups or prides, just as lions in Africa do today.

That the cave lions of Europe and the Americas socialized in prides as do modern African lions isn't so surprising. The cave lions, after all, have been determined to only be an extinct subspecies of lion. Years ago this wasn't the thinking on cave lions at all, as it was thought the cave lion was actually much more closely related to tigers than to lions. That is in the past, the cave lion was definitely a lion.

How did cave lions get their names? Well, you could assume the ancient drawings of cave lions found in caves brought about the name, but that isn't it, the cave lions acquired their names due to their remains being found most often in caves. This doesn't mean too much, as a cave is, of course, a good and perfectly natural place to pick for a shelter.

The cave lion in the snow

There were two species of cave lion, one in Europe and one in America

Typically when people talk of cave lions they are talking specifically about one of two species of extinct lion, the European variety and the American variety. Of course every species of animal has to have come from somewhere, so the ancestor of the cave lions was...another cave lion. Information on this ancestor of the cave lion is very scarce, however, we can at least give it a name, and that name is Panthera leo fossilis

The European cave lion is called Panthera leo spelaea. The American lion, the slightly larger cat, is known as Panthera leo atrox. None of these cats should be confused as cats as large as the largest saber toothed cats. There was at one time an estimate showing a cave lion weighing in at around 930 pounds. Were that correct or the norm, then the cave lion would be considered larger than Smilodon populator, the largest saber toothed tiger, who weighed, on average, 880 pounds.

So how big was the cave lion? These cave lions are suspected to have been eight to ten percent larger and more powerful than current African lions, and somewhat smaller than the earlier Panthera leo fossilis lions. The American cave lion was slightly larger than the European cave lion. The newest data and research with its estimates and such conclude the average cave lion weighed about five hundred and sixty four pounds in males. Lengthwise the cats stretched from five foot three inches to eight foot and two inches in males. They stood about three feet and nine inches tall at the shoulder. Their heads, of course, would have been a foot or more high above the shoulder.

American Cave lion size comparison


So what did the cave lions eat?

What did cave lions eat? Megafauna was the menu, and where the lion lived, Europe, Asia, or America made the difference. These are cats, and just like every cat you ever have heard of, they ate meat, and meat, and then when they were still hungry, they ate more meat. Cats are obligate carnivores, and it just so happened there were some large pieces of meat walking around everywhere in the ice age.

Meat eaters of all stripes, including humans, all know that herbivorous creatures make for the best meat. Cave lions were no different. Horses would have been plentiful in Europe, bison in America; and there were always various and sundry deer and deer-like animals for big cats and wolves to eat. Mammoth was on the menu, and camel as well. The Americas had both mammoth and camel during the age of cave lions. Any pig type animals would surely become meals for cave lions too. Paleolithic American Indians would have become cave lion meals, surely, and the early Native Americans left behind cave lion bones in their refuse, and this absolutely suggests the early natives ate the lions when they could.

A Eurasian cave lion skeleton


The American lion, or American cave lion - was apparently a smarter cat than the saber toothed cats. It must have been a smarter animal than the dire wolves were too. Where do I get off saying such a thing? Well, there have been about one hundred skeletons of the American cave lion pulled from La Brea Tar Pits. That is a lot fewer skeletons than have come from other species of predators from the area. Oh, it could be there weren't so many cave lions in California.

In any event, complete skeletons of extinct species are always exciting. Skeletons, however, are less exciting than whole animals, should they be found preserved and frozen solid in the ice of Siberia. That is exactly what was found there, in Siberia, frozen cave lion cubs. This is all very recent too. I can imagine the de-extinction crusaders wanting to clone some cells, get an embryo, and put it into a female African lion to see if a cave lion can be brought back into the world. We live in amazing times.

Frozen cave lion cub


The Eurasian lions were continent spanning creatures, and lived from the British Isles all the way across Siberia. Some crossed the Bering Strait into the Americas and developed here. There are differences in the Eurasian cave lion and the American lion; but not too many are known and described sufficiently enough to go into great detail over here. The American lion grew slightly bigger, as it had larger prey. The American lion lived from Alberta to Maryland, and down into Mexico too.

These lions preferred the cold weather, and they used caves when they could for dens. These lions preferred thick forest cover for hunting. Smilodon cats preferred the open plains. The biggest threat to the cave lions were the short faced bears, and the European cave bears. As the climate changed and warmed, and humans proliferated, the cave lions died out with their megafaunal prey. What glorious creatures they must have been, them and others too. Our world forever changes, but nature always reins supreme over man and beasts.

Extinct cave lions, almost perfectly preserved, discovered in Siberia

© 2016 Wesman Todd Shaw


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    • Wesman Todd Shaw profile imageAUTHOR

      Wesman Todd Shaw 

      5 months ago from Kaufman, Texas

      @qtix - I sure know that. I could barely find much at all when I did this page.

      Thanks for commenting. This one is on my list of things to re-research, and if I can find more good information, add it to the page.

    • profile image


      5 months ago

      There isn't an impressive amount of stuff to read about these animals

    • annart profile image

      Ann Carr 

      2 years ago from SW England

      Superb! Your research is outstanding and yet more wonderful illustrations.


    • zaton profile image


      3 years ago from California

      Thanks for bringing attention to this old magnificent beast. The cave lion deserves as much acclaim as the dire wolf; which has been revived due to the blockbuster Game of Thrones series.

    • Wesman Todd Shaw profile imageAUTHOR

      Wesman Todd Shaw 

      4 years ago from Kaufman, Texas

      Thanks Alicia! There isn't an impressive amount of stuff to read about these animals - because basically, they're only another species of lion.

      It seems weird that a short hair cat lives in the cold, but then there is the Siberian tiger, who's not a long hair, and lives in plenty of ice and cold.

    • AliciaC profile image

      Linda Crampton 

      4 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thanks for this interesting and informative hub, Wesman. The cave lions sound and look like very impressive animals!


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