Hyenas Hoard Human and Animal Bones Over Span of 7,000 Years

Thanks to The Lion King—and random nature specials—we all know hyenas are snarly, creepy, and generally repulsive. To expand on that dark n’ twisted profile, archaeologists working in Saudi Arabia report they’ve found a cave full of bones that striped hyenas (Hyaena hyaena) have collected over the last 7,000 years. And yes, the giant pile includes human remains.

Four images of a Hyena bone hoard in lava tube

Stewart et al. / Archaeological and Anthropological Sciences ( Creative Commons License)

The Smithsonian Magazine reported on the bone cave, as well.  Archaeologists discovered the cave at the Umm Jirsan lava tube in northwestern Saudi Arabia. Archaeologists have actually been working at the site since 2007. However, they only recently ventured into the lava tube. As Gizmodo reports, one early excavation team heard growling come from the tube, which apparently put archaeologists off it for years.

To better understand migration patterns of animals and humans in the region, one team of archaeologists braved the cave. As it reports in the journal, Archaeological and Anthropological Sciences, the team ID’d thousands of bones. These bones came from cattle, goats, horses, camels, rodents, and of course, humans. In fact, the archaeologists found a whole bunch of human skull shards.

An assortment of animal bones, including those from goats and cattle, placed against a black background.

Stewart et al. / Archaeological and Anthropological Sciences ( Creative Commons License)

“It’s always just the skullcap that survives” Mathew Stewart, a zooarchaeologist at the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Human History and lead author of the study, told Gizmodo. “They [striped hyenas] seem to not really be interested in skullcaps. We found maybe five or six skullcaps with gnaw marks on them at the site, but only the skullcaps. Nothing else.”

However, despite the gruesome scene in the lava tube, striped hyenas probably haven’t been out there hunting humans. Stewart told Gizmodo that striped hyenas are notorious for digging into graves to look for snacks. Which, again, is the kind of frightful, disgusting behavior we’d expect from these (pretty cute?!) creatures.

A striped Hyena holding a chicken foot in its mouth as it stares back at a camera flash in the midst of night.

Vickey Chauhan

As for future research, Stewart and his colleagues want to explore more nearby lava tubes. The zooarcheologist said on Twitter that these underground areas are “valuable insights into the ecologies and environments of Holocene Arabia.” This undoubtedly means there are a ton more human skullcaps to uncover.

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