“the fiercest and most magnanimous of the four footed beasts” Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language, 1755
In 1994 three cave explorers discovered some of the world’s oldest prehistoric cave paintings in the Ardèche Valley of Southern France. Known as the Chauvet Cave this famed archeological site revealed how Paleolithic man lived some 32,000 years ago but also told of the animals he once encountered and lived alongside.
Within the cave speleologist Jean-Marie Chauvet found walls decorated with intricate paintings of bison, horses, mammoths and most predominantly, lions. The Panel of Lions depicts the large cats roaming the plains alongside rhinoceroses. Some appear to be hunting bison whilst others in large groups are shown interacting with one another. The level of detail within the panel suggests the cats were a frequent sight for prehistoric man and perhaps were often encountered within close proximity.
During this period, following their migration out of Africa in the Middle Pleistocene, lions spread into Asia, the Americas and Europe, becoming the most widespread large terrestrial animal on Earth. Two lineages are thought to have roamed Eurasia; P. l. fossilis which flourished some 500,000 years ago and its descendent the Holartic cave lion (P.l. spelea) appearing around 300,000 – 10,000 years ago.
It is the cave lion that adorns the walls of the Chauvet cave and evidence of its wide range has been found elsewhere in modern day Europe, most famously in central London. In 1957 the fossilized toe bone of a lion was unearthed close to Trafalgar Square, dating back to 125,000 years ago. Of the thousands of visitors milling amongst Landseer’s bronze lions at Trafalgar Square every year, few would ever believe lion of flesh and blood once dominated this area.
From the cave lion emerged the modern day lion and it is thought a single population in Sub-Saharan Africa around 320,000 – 190,000 years ago gave rise to the present African lion population. Today there are two recognised sub species of the lion, the African lion (P. leo) and the Asiatic lion (P. leo persica) with very little genetic difference between the two (1.1%).
It is this prehistoric coexistence with the lion across the globe that saw the beginning of our fascination with the species. Their image dominates all forms of modern day symbology and their presence resonates throughout cultural history worldwide.
Image: HTO | Wikimedia.org