The relationship between bears and humans dates back tens of thousands of years, during which time we have competed with bears for shelter and food. Our strong link with bears is attested to by the Neanderthal burial of ‘Le Regourdou’, in France, where the skeleton of a Neanderthal in a foetal position was found under a funeral slab surrounded by the bones of a brown bear. Bears were also represented in rock paintings in caves inhabited by our ancestors in Europe. The bears depicted by our ancestors were cave bear, which roamed Eurasia until about 24,000 years ago, when it became extinct during the Last Glacial Maximum. Recently, gene flow between extinct cave bears and brown bears has been discovered, providing direct evidence for ancestral hybridisation between the two species, which resulted in the modern Ursus arctos that we all know.
In human culture, bears also represent an important figure in Native American mythologies and play a major role in several religious ceremonies.
Bears have also influenced the culture of many tribes in Asia. In fact, they are important animals for some tribes in Siberia. For example, the Ainu people in Japan consider the bear as the “Spirit of the Mountains”. In Russia, at a Fat’yanovo cultural site dated to around 1500 BC, necklaces made with bear teeth were found. Several bear claws with bronze mounting, dated between the ninth and eleventh centuries, were also discovered among a Finno-Ugrian group in the Urals that venerated the bear as a symbol of heroism.
The images of bears in popular culture have helped them become icons that most people know and love. The most famous example is the teddy bear, which has been one of the most popular stuffed animals since the early 1900s and continues to be a favourite with children. More recently, Baloo from The Jungle Book, Winnie the Pooh, Yogi and Boo-Boo, and Masha and the Bear tell us that the strong link between people and bears, which started more than 80,000 years ago, continues nowadays.
We hope that readers will enjoy this book at least as much as we have enjoyed its long preparation and our close collaboration with chapter contributors, and that the huge effort made by all the authors will be appreciated not just by the scientific community but also by a wider audience. Being in a bear country captivates our minds and, at the same time, offers a lesson in humility by giving us the feeling that something more powerful than us is out there.