Earlier last week, Reindeer herders from the Lyakhovsky Islands of Siberia made a “grizzly” discovery: a “completely preserved” cave bear carcass dating back to the Ice Age, unearthed from the land’s permafrost.
Previously, only bones and skulls of the species, Ursus spelaeus, had been found, however this carcass includes its internal organs in place, teeth preserved, and even nose intact.
It is believed that the bear lived somewhere between 22,000 to 39,500 years ago; carbon dating and further studies will be conducted by the North-Eastern Federal University in Yakutsk, Russia.
The bear’s remains appear to be an ancestor of the brown bear, described as “the first and only find of its kind,” by paleontologist Dr. Lena Grigorieva with the university. “This find is of great importance for the whole world,” she says, given its almost perfectly preserved state. The link between cave bears and modern bears can be extended back about 1.2-1.4 million years ago.
Coincidentally, a cave bear cub was also found in Russia recently, meaning that this discovery could provide more information on the history of cave bears as a whole.
In the past, several other animals have also been found frozen in the permafrost. According to Business Insider, the remains of woolly mammoths have been uncovered, as well as a 40,000-year-old wolf’s head, (also retaining its facial tissue and teeth).
Naturally preserved corpses have been one of the greatest assets to the scientific community towards understanding life millions of years ago. Technological advancements have given us the ability to reconstruct entire faces, body structures, dietary habits, and daily lives of extinct species. The corpse of “Otzi the Iceman,” for example, lived some time between 3400 and 3100 B.C., yet scientists have recently determined the exact travel route in his last 48 hours alive after analyzing a species of moss sprinkled on his clothing. Carcasses such as these are responsible for a grand majority of what we know about how our ancestors lived, and therefore how we have come to be.
But are these discoveries indicative of something greater? The thawing of the Siberian permafrost, while a huge step for the archaeological finds, are the result of rising global temperatures. Reaching from just a few to hundreds of meters below the surface, the frozen soil actually contains roughly twice as much carbon as Earth’s atmosphere. As it thaws, this carbon will be released into the atmosphere and contribute to the growing climate – thus creating an endless cycle. While understanding how we lived so many years ago, we may be contributing to the very thing that could leave us as the next Otzi’s.