A huge collection of animal bones - dating back up to 60,000 years - has been unearthed deep within the Ural Mountains of Russia. More than 500 bones and fragments were discovered inside the Imanai cave, in the republic of Bashkiria, and experts believe they belonged to giant cave lions. The find is the largest-ever discovery of remains of the extinct creature and archaeologists claim the animals would have been made as sacrifices by ancient man.
Cave lions have previously been depicted in cave paintings (pictured in the Chauvet Cave, France) yet despite their name they didn't live inside caves. Instead, they would hunt bears and steal their cubs from caves, particularly during the last European Ice Age
The cave lion lived in and around Europe from 370,000 to 12,000 years ago and was also known as the Eurasian cave lion.
The species is said to have been around 25 per cent larger than modern lions and stood around 3ft (one metre) tall.
The animals lived at the same time as Neanderthals and have been depicted in cave paintings, yet despite their name they didn't live inside caves.
Instead, they would hunt bears and steal their cubs from caves, particularly during the last European Ice Age.
The cave lions, along with their prey such as cave bears and giant deer, were wiped out by the Quaternary extinction event.
Pavel Kosintsev, from the regional Institute of Plant and Animal Ecology in Yekaterinburg, told The Siberian Times: 'We found about 500 bones and fragments of bones of the giant cave lion.
'But there could be more, after we finish with sorting the collection.
'Such a large quantity of giant cave lion bones at one site is really unique, the only one in the world so far discovered.'
The bones of five or six lions were covered in layers of soil more than 300ft (91 metres) inside the cave, he continued.
Yet it was not normal for healthy giant cave lions to venture so far from the entrance.
'Usually lions did not go so deep into the cave, it is not typical for them,' said the scientist.
He suspects the cave had a religious significance for ancient man and that the animals were sacrificed to their gods, although the names of these gods and the practices involved are unknown.
On the same site, Russian researchers also unearthed a cave bear skull pierced with an ancient spear.
Weapons - notably ten Mousterian stone spearheads - were found too, but there were no signs that prehistoric man lived in the cave.
Previously only two had been located in the entire Urals region of Russia.
The Mousterian period was a Stone Age era that lasted from about half a million to tens of thousands of years ago.
'We also found the skull of a cave bear pierced with the spear, yet there were no evidence that ancient people hunted cave bears, at least not in the Urals,' said Mr Kosintsev.
In other words, ancient man is likely to have killed the animals in this sacred cave, not as a source of food but rather as a sacrifice.
'The spearheads are the only sign of human activity - and it is also quite strange,' Mr Kosintev added.
'If ancient people lived in this cave, they should have left the traces of making the spearheads, and bones of the animals which people ate.
'Here we see only the spearheads and it is further evidence in favour of the hypothesis that it was a sacred place.
'People did not live here, they used this place for some other purposes' - most likely as a place of sacrifice.'
The cave came to light as a significant site after local hunters found ancient bones.
The latest finds will now be dated, but material collected in upper layers of the cave floor during previous research is around 30,000 years old.
'The recent findings, from the lower layers, can be older, up to 60,000 years ago,' Mr Kostintsev said.
It could be 'the world's most ancient sacred place of this type'.
There are also now hopes of significant new finds when archaeologists return next summer.
Sacred cave where GIANT LIONS were sacrificed 60,000 years ago discovered in Russia By WILL STEWART 24 August 2015Tweet