Scientists examining a dried lava tube in northwestern Saudi Arabia were stunned to find a huge accumulation of bones belonging to horses, donkeys and even humans.
“We're entering striped hyena territory. The striped hyena loves to store and store bones,”said Matthew Stewart, a zooarchaeologist at the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Human History. Although the hyenas in Saudi Arabia are now endangered, they seem to have been extremely active for most of the Holocene era. Stewart and his team have published an analysis of the unusual finds in the journal Archaeological and Anthropological Sciences.
Although a kilometer-long lava tube was discovered in the mid-2000s, the discoverers did not go too deep into the cave. The previous team said they heard growling in lava tubes - a chilling sign that the so jealously guarded hyena population in Saudi Arabia has found a new home and is ready to defend it at the cost of its own life.
So the new team needed to figure out how a huge number of bones - hundreds of thousands of which belong to at least 40 different species and date from roughly 7,000 years ago to the Victorian era - ended up buried in the back of a lava tube.
After cataloging all the bones and examining the scratches, tooth marks and food products on them, it was concluded that the "pantry" really belongs to hyenas. Further evidence of this came from human skulls, which were also found in the cave: hyenas are famous for tearing up human graves for meat. “After a meal of striped hyenas, only a skullcap is always left,” the archaeologist noted. “It looks like hyenas are not particularly interested in skullcaps. We counted five or six hats that were thoroughly worn out, but nothing else survived."
The most surprising circumstance for the researchers was the fact that most of the bones have survived to this day in excellent preservation. Without knowing it, the hyenas have turned their lair into a "time capsule", exploring which scientists hope to learn a lot of interesting information about the history and species diversity of the region.