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Bones and DNA are particularly well preserved in caves. Here from the excavation in Nygrotta.

Thousands-year-old animal bones discovered in cave: "We've found several species that have surprised us"

Changes in climate sent species fleeing even thousands of years ago.

Researchers have identified as many as 40 different animals that lived in the vicinity of Nygrotta 5,000 to 13,000 years ago.

By analysing DNA and studying old animal bones, researchers have been able to reconstruct the animal diversity from the cave in Northern Norway.

“We've found several animal species that have surprised us. Among others, we found the bones of animals that we see moving northwards again nowadays due to a warmer climate,” says Sanne Boessenkool.

She is a professor at the University of Oslo's Department of Biosciences. Boessenkool is an expert on ancient DNA and changes in biodiversity. 

She emphasises that what happened to the climate after the last ice age cannot be used to diminish the seriousness of what is happening due to today's human-induced climate changes.

“But this knowledge can help us to better analyse how climate change will affect animal diversity in the future,” says Boessenkool.

“We know that there was a warmer climate before, but we don't know much about what kind of animals lived here at that time. Now we have new knowledge about how wildlife changed when it got warmer, after the end of the last ice age,” researcher Aurélie Boilard at the Department of Biosciences says.

Knowledge about what happened to animals and fish thousands of years ago can contribute to better analyses of how today's climate changes can affect biodiversity, researchers Aurélie Boilard and Sanne Boessenkool believe.

A unique cave

In a new article published in Science Advances, Boessenkool, Boilard, and several other colleagues present results from excavations of a unique cave in Nordland in Narvik municipality. 

It is unusual to find such extensive deposits from this time period in caves. And it is even more unusual that so many bone remains have been preserved in the cave's sediments.

The cave was completely unknown until 1993.

“There are really few such sites where we have found bones and bone remains of animal communities that have been completely free of previous human impact or modern disturbance,” says Boessenkool.

The cave was discovered when part of the hillside was removed to build a road to an industrial site. 

The excavation was led by Trond Lødøen, associate professor at the University Museum of Bergen. Archaeologists, geologists, and biologists participated in the study. There was collaboration between several universities, including the University of Bergen, NMBU, the Arctic University Museum of Norway, and the University of Oslo. From the industry, experts from Heidelberg Materials Sement Norway have participated.

“We've combined knowledge from osteology with DNA analyses of the bones. This has enabled us to reconstruct how animal diversity changed after the last ice age,” says Boessenkool.

DNA barcoding is a useful technique for researchers. Short pieces of the genetic material of an unknown organism can be compared with DNA from known species in a quality-checked DNA library.

Analyses of fragments

Boessenkool has collaborated widely with researchers from other disciplines to take a deep dive into the remains of what they could find in Nygrotta. This cave is part of the large cave system Storsteinshola in Kjøpsvik. 

Osteology is the study of bone tissue, bones, and skeletons. Osteologists have helped to identify the species of the remains found in the cave

“But more than 90 per cent, so more than 2,000 bone fragments, could not be identified in this way. Many of the bones were too broken or damaged,” Samuel James Walker says, a researcher and osteologist involved in the project.

“The small bones and remains that we could not identify through osteology have been identified through a technique called DNA barcoding,” Boilard adds.

This is a technique where researchers can gain insight into and analyse DNA from the bone fragments to determine which family, genus, or species it belongs. 

Aurélie Boilard studies the samples from Nygrotta.

By combining osteology and DNA analyses, the researchers were able to identify as many as 40 different animals that lived in the vicinity of Nygrotta 5,000-13,000 years ago.

The fish that are moving northward were also here in the past

By examining large quantities of bone remains in the cave, the experts have made several remarkable discoveries. 

The most recent deposits that the researchers examined date back 5,800 years. At that time, the climate was warmer than today. This possibly corresponds to the climate we can expect in the future. 

“In this layer we see that the species that are adapted to the cold have moved on,” the researchers explain.

The species they list from this layer include forest birds such as grouse and a genus of fish called Seriola (amberjacks), which is also now heading north again with a warming climate.

The researchers found remains of this fish species Seriola, which is now on its way north to a warmer climate, in Nygrotta.

“We see that some of the species that are moving northwards today have been here before. We know that it was warmer in the past, but we don't have a full overview of which animal species existed this far north,” explains Boilard.

The researchers also found remains of freshwater fish from a remarkably early phase.

“In the deposits dating back 9,500 years, we found remains of freshwater fish. We don't know for sure how these fish migrated into Norway after the glaciers melted. But we see that freshwater fish arrive very early in the north, almost immediately after the ice disappeared,” says Boilard.

In this sediment layer, the researchers also found land-dwelling animals such as bears, lemmings, hares, and several small shrews. They also found seabirds and mussels.

The lowest and oldest sediment layer examined was 13,000 years old. At that time, the sea level was above the cave opening and the climate was colder than today. In this layer, the researchers only found fish species that are adapted to cold conditions, such as cod and ling.

The research group in front of the cave entrance.

Caves as unique archives from the past

Caves are natural cavities and create very good preservation conditions protecting remains from the outside elements. 

Bones, remains of and from prehistoric people, and even DNA are therefore particularly well preserved in caves. 

There are many caves in Nordland, but few have been investigated by researchers. Unfortunately, in many places the source material has been destroyed by trampling and visitors who do not show the necessary consideration.

It is also very demanding to analyse such deposits in caves. It took the researchers many months to analyse all the material from Nygrotta. 

They used sieves with very fine mesh to capture all the bones in the sediments. DNA that is so old is highly degraded and easily contaminated. This requires the researchers to work very carefully, and the samples are analysed in a so-called ancient DNA laboratory at the University of Oslo.

“By combining osteology and DNA analyses, we have managed to form a fairly complete picture of the species that existed based on the bones we analysed. Few studies go into such detail,” says Boessenkool.

“Our study provides new insights into how animal communities developed during previous climate changes and, not least, after the changes took place,” Boilard concludes.


Boilard et al. Ancient DNA and osteological analyses of a unique paleo-archive reveal Early Holocene faunal expansion into the Scandinavian ArcticScience Advances, vol. 10, 2024. DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.adk3032

About the study

The study is part of the EvoCave research project funded by the Research Council of Norway.

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