If you’re exploring caves, there are a few things you’d never want to find. For instance, a giant sleeping bear, or a cauldron of testy bats. However, for many people “cave full of human bones,” is probably near the top of that list. Researchers in Saudi Arabia recently found just that.
According to Live Science, the fact that the cave was full of human and animal bones is only the beginning. Animals had gnawed on the bones. The publication reports that the cave floor was “covered in deep piles of gnawed bones.” In fact, the sheer amount of skeletal remains shows that the animals were at it for thousands of years
This discovery came from the Umm Jirsan lava tube in the Harrat Khaybar lava field in Saudi Arabia. The system of caves was carved by flowing lava millions of years ago. Three separate tunnels make up the Umm Jirsan lava tube. Piles of rock from collapsed tunnels form barriers between the tunnels, each of which is as long as 40 miles and dozens of feet wide. The western passage of the cave system is where they found the cache of human and animal bones.
It is a gruesome sight, to be sure. However, not all of the bones in the cave are human. In fact, most of them are from donkeys, goats, and gazelles. Still, the thought of gnawed human bones in an underground lair is enough to make the skin crawl.
Researchers studied the bones as well as preserved feces in the cave system. Through this study, they learned that striped hyenas populated the den. From what they can tell they started using the cave as their home about 4,500 years ago. They were still in that cave, chewing on human and animal bones about 150 years ago.
The Bright Side of the Cave Full of Human Bones
One piece of information makes this find less terrifying. Hyenas are scavengers. So, they probably didn’t kill humans, drag them to their cave, and gnaw their bones. Instead, they most likely dug up graves and drug the bodies back to their den.
Lead researcher, Matthew Stewart told Live Science, that it is possible that some of the human bones in the cave were the result of hyenas preying on people. However, “the human remains at Umm Jirsan are likely due to striped hyena scavenging from human gravesites.”
On second thought, grave-robbing hyenas still sound pretty horrifying.
Finding a cave full of animal and human bones sounds like it would really ruin someone’s day. However, Stewart noted that it is an important find. “Sites like these may hold potential keys to understanding the environments and ecologies of the past in arid regions like Arabia,” he told the publication.