Sapiens: The last wild lions of Europe

Image: Nancy Thomas

Once upon a time, people near the valley of Nemea in southern Greece lived in mortal fear of a lion lurking in the surrounding hills and preying on the populace. Only mighty Hercules, challenged by the king of nearby Tiryns, could slay the beast.

The son of Zeus cornered the powerful carnivore in a cave and choked it to death with his bare arms. Thereafter, the people lived in peace, and Hercules continued his famed adventures.

Of course, the Nemean lion story is a mere fable, part of an eclectic cast of gods, heroes, and fantastic beasts that populated the myths of antiquity. There are certainly no wild lions in Europe today.

But early 20th-century archaeologists in mainland Greece thought that there might be some truth to the existence of lions in the region in ancient times. Why else do these creatures feature so prominently—and realistically—in art from the late Bronze Age, as well as myths and actual reports by later scholars from the Classical period, such as Aristotle and Herodotus?

Though such theories were long dismissed by other researchers, in 1978, two prominent German zooarchaeologists made a startling discovery. During an excavation of Tiryns—the same city whose legendary king dared Hercules into action—they chanced upon a feline heel bone near a human skeleton. It was unmistakably from a lion, they concluded, and possibly of the same species that inhabits parts of the African continent today.

The bone was only the first of dozens to surface in Tiryns and elsewhere over the following decades. Though some details remain unclear, many archaeologists and historians now use this evidence to conclude that modern lions once lived alongside people in parts of what is today Europe, including Greece, for hundreds of years. Today lion bones offer a rare glimpse into the Bronze Age world and the fraught relationship humans had with these fierce predators, animals that inspired legends and creative works for centuries.

“Now it’s possible to say that some [lion images] could have been recalled from real experiences on the [Greek] mainland,” says art historian Nancy Thomas. The finds, she adds, cast “a whole different light on the art … and how hunting real lions could have played into the elite structure development that was going on in Greece at the time.”

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