“The Last Wild Lions of Europe”
by Katarina Zimmer
Sapiens, January 4, 2022
I hope you’re well. I’m a freelance journalist with a story I think could work for Sapiens about the last lions of Europe and what they tell us about ourselves. I’d be grateful if you could let me know soon if this idea is of interest. Thanks very much for considering!
During the Greek Bronze Age, residents of Nemea lived in constant fear, the legend has it. A lion that no mortal could kill was terrorizing the village, devouring children and adults alike. Its claws could slice through armor and its golden fur was impervious to arrows. It was only when the king of nearby Tiryns challenged the mighty Heracles—known today by his Roman name, Hercules—to slay the beast, that hope was restored. One night, in the dark quarters of the lion’s cave, the son of Zeus strangled the powerful carnivore to death. The villagers lived peacefully ever after, while Hercules continued his famed adventures.
Like all ancient Greek mythical creatures, the Nemean lion is considered mere fable—part of an eclectic cast of gods, mortals and fantastic beasts that populated the soap operas of antiquity. After all, the last lions known to have lived on the European continent were cave lions—a large, wavy-haired species that went extinct around 13,000 years ago. But over the years, some have wondered if there is a grain of truth to the existence of wild lions in Bronze Age Greece. Why else do they feature so prominently—and so realistically—in ancient art, folk tales, and even real accounts by later scholars such as Aristotle and Herodotus?
Such theories were long vehemently dismissed as fanciful by many scholars. But then in 1978, a pair of German archaeologists chanced upon a heel bone and a humerus while excavating ruins of Tiryns — a city that formed the cultural center of Bronze Age Greece. The bones were broken at the edges, worn and cracked by the rub of time, yet they were—unmistakably—lion bones, from the very species that inhabits Africa today, Panthera leo. Curiously, unlike claws or teeth brought in as souvenirs from hunting expeditions in the Middle East, these large bones likely stemmed from wild, native lions, the archaeologists proposed.
In recent years, over a hundred other Panthera leo bones have popped up around the Mediterranean, even in Italy and Spain. Together, they tell a remarkable story. Lions, which were once one of the globe’s most widespread mammals, roaming across Africa and Asia, also migrated into southern Europe. They existed there for several thousand years, taking a last stand in ancient Greece around 1000 BC or maybe even as recent as 300 BC, inspiring symbols of lions as royalty and power so prevalent across Europe today.
Yet this wisp of ancient megafauna, attempting to settle at a time when human civilization was booming, met a harsh—and sometimes tragic—fate. Like the Nemean lion, these lions too were considered enemies. Weapon marks on bones and other evidence suggest that they were hunted and eaten, or pushed out of their territory, says László Bartosiewicz, an archaeologist at Stockholm University who studies the relationships between animals and ancient peoples.
The story of these ancient lions is to my knowledge so far untold in English language media. I’d like to propose a ~2400-word feature that explores their lives and demise through an anthropological lens: how they powerfully influenced ancient Greek culture and modern symbolism in Europe whilst their fate was transformed by people. I would tell this story by interweaving ancient Greek mythology and art, vibrant scenes of discoveries from excavations, and the evidence for the fraught relationship between lions and people, which continues to this day. (I would also give due hearing for alternative theories around some of these lion bones, but so far all of the 6 scholars I’ve spoken to are convinced that they represent wild individuals). That said, I’m open to tailoring the focus of this story.
A bit about me: I’m a [redacted]-based freelance journalist covering life science, conservation, and environmental issues. Much of my longform writing has appeared in The Scientist, and I also contribute to publications such as National Geographic, BBC Future, Scientific American, The Counter, and others.
I would be delighted to report this story for Sapiens. Please let me know if you have any questions and thank you very much for your consideration.