Sunday, 9 December 2012

Ursus spelaeus

This is courtesy of Norbert Casteret.

It attained the size of a bull, but the bones of an Ox look fragile compared to a cave bear's. It's muscles must have been huge, judging by the muscular insertions of the bone; it's canine teeth were the size of bananas.

It penetrated to great depths, exploring the most out-of-the-way crannies.


Even in narrow vertical passages, where one can climb only by hitching oneself up like a chimney sweep, I have been surprised to find bear traces on walls covered with clay or delicate stalagmite. Sometimes long scratches tell of desperate efforts and dangerous slides: sometimes, too, I have found skeletons at the foot of pits or steep walls.

Eleven hundred yards from the entrance to the cavern of Montespan the bears noticed a narrow gallery opening ten feet above the water. Thanks to their great size they were able to put their forepaws in the opening, but a layer of soft clay makes the place peculiarly difficult to climb into.

Nothing could be more curious and striking than the many long scratches in the clay, which shows the bears obstinate attempts to hoist themselves into the tunnel. We can imagine the beasts falling back heavily into the water, growling as they got up to try again. Some of them succeeded in entering the corridor, which grows smaller after fifty feet. Here their size prevented them from going further, and they clawed up the earth.

The tunnel ends at an impassible crack after a hundred feet. At the end of this cul-de-sac a cub, which can have been no bigger than a poodle, has left the marks of its little claws upon the floor.

It is not surprising that the cub continued to explore the tunnel beyond the point where it's parents were halted, but the amusing thing, which sheds a light on the animals habits, is that the cub could not have climbed into the high tunnel alone. It's mother must have strained every nerve to hoist it up.

But not all the bears perished alike: some fled deeper than ever into the caverns ... the penetrating damp of the caverns caused a degenerative disease, whose stages are strikingly shown by the monstrous lesions of the bones still found in the caverns … There are deformed jaws, joined vertebrae, shoulder blades encrusted with bony tumour, long bones distorted by a sort of arthritis and sometimes grown together..”

I can't stop imagining them penetrating deeper and deeper into the earth, slowly changing.


  1. Oh, yes... This is so lovely, and disturbing.

  2. Have you read the San Veneficio Canon? This reminded me of it, though it's a tenuous connection. Weird transformations and katabasis.