History of lions in Europe
The history of lions in Europe is based on fossils of Pleistocene and Holocene lions excavated in Europe since the early 19th century. Historical literature such as the Iliad of ancient Greece features lion similes.
The first lion fossil was excavated in southern Germany and described by Georg August Goldfuss under Felis spelaea, which probably dates to the Würm glaciation and is 191,000 to 57,000 years old. Older lion skull fragments were excavated in Germany and described by Wilhelm von Reichenau under Felis fossilis in 1906. These are estimated at between 621,000 and 533,000 years old.
As indicated by the numerous art depictions, modern lions in the Balkans despite the fact of cooler climate, had less developed mane, lacking abdominal and lateral manes and ulnar hair. Οn the contrary, lions from Transcaucasia exhibited all these features.
Pleistocene lion records
Lion fossils were excavated in Spain, Portugal, France, Italy, Belgium, United Kingdom, Germany, Poland, Czech Republic, Hungary and Russia. The oldest fossils excavated near Pakefield in the United Kingdom are estimated at 680,000 years old and represent P. fossilis.
Late Pleistocene cave lion P. spelaea bone fragments date to between the Weichselian glaciation and the Holocene, and are between 109,000 and 14,000 years old. This lion was widely distributed from the Iberian peninsula, Southeast Europe, across most of northern Eurasia into Alaska. In Eurasia, it became extinct between 14,900 and 14,100 years ago, and survived in Beringia until 13,800 to 13,300 years ago.
Modern lion records
The earliest subfossil lion remains to date were excavated in Basque Country and are about 9,600–7,000 years old, dating to the Boreal period. There are doubts if this was a modern lion or a late surviving spelaea cave lion.
A neolithic lion tooth fragment representing the Atlantic Period was found in Karanovo, Bulgaria, and is estimated 6,000 years old. In Greece lions first appeared around 6,500-6,000 years ago as indicated by a front leg bone found in Philippi. Bone fragments of the modern lion were excavated in Hungary and in Ukraine's Black Sea region, which are estimated at around 5,500 to 3,000 years old. Remains were also found in Albania, Romania and European Turkey.
The lion became extinct in the Peloponnese around 1,000 BC. The species survived in Bulgaria until the 4th or 3rd century BC, and in mainland Greece until about 100 AD. By the first century AD it was already extinct in the region of Macedonia. Possibly it survived longer farther south. In the 4th century AD, Themistius regrets that in his time the lion disappeared in Thessaly and no more lions could be furnished for beast-shows.
The lion was present in Transcaucasia until the 10th century. The peak of its historic range covered all of the plains and foothills of eastern Transcaucasia westward almost to Tbilisi. Northwards, its range extended through the eastern Caucasus, from the Apsheron Peninsula to the mouth of the Samur River near the current Azerbaijan-Russia border, extending to the Araks river. From there, the boundary of its range narrowly turned east to Yerevan, with its northern boundary then extending westward to Turkey.
Lions feature in ancient Greek mythology and writings, including the myth of the Nemean lion, which was believed to be a supernatural lion that occupied the sacred town of Nemea in the Peloponnese. Homer mentioned lions 45 times in his poems, but this could have been due to his experience in Asia Minor.
It is said that Phalaecus, a tyrant of Amvrakia (modern-day Arta), was killed by a mother lioness due to his holding a newborn lion-cub, after finding it on an expedition for hunting. Herodotus wrote that lions were found between Achelous river and Nestus, being plentiful between Akanthos and Thermi. He also stated that when Xerxes advanced near Echedorus in 480 BC, the troops' camels were attacked by lions. Xenophon stated around 400 BC that lions were hunted around Mount Kissos, Pangaio, the Pindus mountains and elsewhere. Aristotle in the 4th century BC provided some data on lion distribution, behaviour, breeding and also anatomy. According to him, lions were more numerous in North Africa than in Europe. He also wrote that they had approached towns, and attacked people only if they were old, or had poor dental health. In the 2nd century AD, Pausanias referred to lion presence west of Nestus in Thrace, in the area of Abdera. He also mentioned the old stories, that of Polydamas of Skotoussa, an Olympic winner of the 5th century BC who was said to have used his bare hands to kill a lion on Thessalian part of Mount Olympus and that of Caranus of Macedon who according to the Macedonians, raised a trophy that was thrown down and destroyed by a lion that was rushing down from Mount Olympus.
Depiction of a hunting scene on a dagger found in Mycenae, Greece, 16th century BC
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