This picture, taken from the entrance into the bear cave, shows archaeologist Heidrun Stebergløkken in action. Bear bones were found deep inside the cave. Photo: Jørgen Rosvold, NTNU

Mystery in the bear cave

The oldest known bear bones from northern Scandinavia have been discovered in a limestone cave. But the cave also contained a mystery.

More than eight thousand years ago,  a brown bear crawled into a limestone cave in northern Norway. Perhaps it never woke up from its winter hibernation.

“These are the oldest dated bear bones in northern Scandinavia,” says NTNU postdoctoral fellow Jørgen Rosvold about the discovery in Brønnøy municipality in Nordland county that he helped make.

Northern Scandinavia includes the northern parts of Norway, Sweden and Finland. Some older discoveries of bear bones have been made in southern Norway and Sweden. The bears migrated along two routes, one from the south and one from the northeast. This is probably the oldest find along the northern route, Rosvold says.

That the bear died while hibernating is one plausible theory, the biologist believes. This often happens with older bears and the bones display no traces of being killed or chewed by other predators.

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A collection of very well-preserved bear bones. Photo: Jørgen Rosvold, NTNU


This cave is difficult to reach, which is probably one of the main reasons why the bear bones have remained undisturbed for so long.

Rosvold can usually be found in the Department of Archaeology and Cultural History at the NTNU University Museum in Trondheim. He and archaeologist Heidrun Stebergløkken first found the bear remains during a visit to the cave in 2016. That visit would prove to unearth a special discovery.

Why coal residues?

Another find – coal residues – could indicate that bears have probably used the cave more recently as well.

A side chamber deep in the cave. Inside this little chamber, researchers found pieces of coal that were widely spread over the floor, but concentrated in certain areas. The roof over the areas with the most coal was completely black with soot. Photo: Jørgen Rosvold, NTNU

These coal concentrations “may be residue from fires used to smoke out bears,” says Rosvold, but he stresses that this is just one possible interpretation.

The researchers found the coal residues in several places inside a narrow part of the cave that would have quickly filled with smoke. The dating of the coal shows that it stemmed from several visits during the period known as the pre-Roman Iron Age, between 2000-2500 years ago.

Bear culture

Experts in the field know that bear hunting and trade in bearskins were important activities in the Iron Age. In many graves from this time period, the dead were buried on bearskins. We know from ethnographic sources that using fire was a widespread method to hunt bears in their dens in many parts of the world, but few archaeological traces of this activity exist.

Researchers sifted test pieces of coal sediments inside the cave to look for human deposits. Photo: Heidrun Stebergløkken, NTNU

The bear has long been a very important part of Sami culture, for example. A number of rituals were previously linked to the bear and bear hunting, including the burial of bear skeletons.

Rosvold thinks that the activity in this cave could be connected to these kinds of rituals. The old bear skeleton would also have been visible to the people who many thousand years later crept into the cave with burning torches

South Sami regions

Much of Rosvold’s fieldwork takes place in traditional southern Sami areas, and he is working on revealing new aspects of former Sami use of high mountain regions. He is also particularly interested in the biology of caves. This project may give him an opportunity to combine these interests.

Many indigenous peoples regard the bear as equal to humans, according to an article in the journal Spor (issue 1, 2017) by archaeologist Ingrid Sommerseth at UiT – The Arctic University of Norway.

Over 30 bear graves have been found in Norway, from the northern Trøndelag region to Finnmark county. All were found in natural cavities under large rocks or in mountain ranges. Humans and bears were buried near each other, and in one case together.

The bear was both a cult animal that was treated with veneration and a food resource.

Further investigations will be able to provide us with more answers as to how humans and animals may have used such deep and narrow limestone caves.