I was astonished that such an historical item was sold in the Museums shop at the NMH in Vienna last year. I had dreamed of such a possibility almost during my whole life.
One of the most important chemicals used in fertilizers and in the production of gun powder is phosphate. Mineral Deposits of phosphate are quite rare and when a source is discovered it is usually rapidly exploited. Much of the world’s phosphate comes from animal sources. Abundant accumulations of fossilized bones in cave fillings have early been recognized as phosphate sources. Lamentably beginning with the 18th century, cave fillings were “mined” in large quantities for the production of gun powder (for example in the Perigord). In 1917 the Austrian Ministry for Agriculture ordered to search for phosphate deposits in the Austrian lands. This led to the exploitation of cave deposits containing bones of extinct animals and was carried out by large scale mining techniques (mine railways, chutes, cable cars…). This exploitation partly affected the Tischoferhöhle near Kufstein (Tirol), but especially Styrian karst caves near Graz , especially the Drachenhöhle near Mixnitz. A scientific commission evaluated the Drachenhöhle, for its putative paleontological and archaeological value. The most important scientists in this context were the prehistorian Georg Kyrle and the important paleontologist Othenio Abel. They recognized that the rich deposits of phosphate came primarily from cave bear carcass and its excrements. It was said, that the phosphate deposits of the Drachenhöhle included approximately 500,000 kg of bone fragments for the production of fertilizers and 4,000 kg fossils, which were selected for scientific purposes. During these early excavations at Mixnitz, Middle and some Upper Palaleolithic artifacts, mainly made of quartzite, quartz, hornstone and flint were detected. They are most probably dated to OIS3. According to the excavators (ABEL-KYRLE, Die Drachenhöhle bei Mixnitz, Spei. Monogr. 7—9, Wien 1931) the artifacts represented low density scatters and were part of different strata within the cave filling. The cave was also used during the Neolithic and Bronze age. While the monograph of ABEL and KYRLE remains the seminal work for the study of cave bears, there is unfortunately only minimal contextual information about the artifacts they found. This may be the result of the rescue character of the WW1-excavations. The co-occurrence of cave bear (Ursus deningeri and U. spelaeus) carcasses and stone / bone artifacts of Middle to Upper Paleolithic character have been used by many archaeologists during the beginning of systematic cave research in the early 20th century to claim that:
- Humans hunted the cave bear in large quantities, which explains the abundance of their carcasses in the caves.
- Humans created sophisticated deposits of cave bear remains (long bones, skulls), that indicate a cave bear cult which was widely practiced during the Middle and Upper Paleolithic. This cult should be similar to rituals known from recent hunter-gatherers of the Northern hemisphere.
With the advances in taphonomic research these theories were completely refuted.
- The large quantities of cave bear remains could be easily explained by the fact, that both the cave bear and the brown bear (Ursus arctos), show a strong preference for cave accommodation. There, they hide during wintertime and give birth to their young. During hibernation, the bears often died of natural causes, for example age, illness or lack of food. Until now there is only one proven example of cave bear hunting and killing by humans at the Gravettian cave deposits of the Hohle Fels cave in Swabia. Here, several well preserved traces of human modifications on cave bear bones, such as cut and blow marks were detected. In addition, a bear vertebra with an embedded flint projectile was found.
- It was shown that the enigmatic assortments of bear skulls and long bones in the caves are not due to human activities, but to the flowing water or other transport mediums. Until now, there is no convincing evidence for a paleolithic bear cult.
- As indicated from recent excavations, Human occupations of the cave bear sites were quite ephemeral, short visits separated by long intervals of time.
About Professor Abel’s biography and antisemitism at the university of Vienna during the interwar years: Klaus Taschwer: Geheimsache Bärenhöhle (via researchgate)