Greek scientists believe that a cave near Vravrona, about 40 km (25 miles) east of Athens, was a hideout for lions and panthers which roamed the Greek countryside thousands of years ago.
Fossils belonging to small and large mammals, including lions and panthers, have been recently unearthed by researchers. Other species identified from skeletal remains include wolves, bison, horses, bears and deer.
Excavations in the cave began in the mid 1970s and continues to this day. Scientists say that the fossils date over a large period between twenty-five thousand to seven thousand years ago.
They believe that the cave was either a natural trap for animals, or perhaps was a place where large predators would bring their prey to enjoy a quiet dinner.
Because most of these species became extinct in Greece such a long time ago, little is known about the animals’ possible ranges throughout the country.
Lions feature very prominently in ancient Greek mythology and writings including the myth of the Nemean Lion. This animal, which was believed to enjoy supernatural powers, was said to have occupied the sacred town of Nemea in the Peloponese.
The Nemean Lion was famously slain by Heracles, constituting the first labor the Greek god was tasked with performing. It was said that the lion’s fur was impervious to attacks because it was made of gold, and its claws, sharper than mortal swords, could cut through armor.
Heracles managed to kill the Nemean Lion by strangling it; he wore the lion’s pelt ever after.
Lions symbolized power and wealth for the ancient Greeks. Aristotle and Herodotus wrote that lions were even found in the Balkans in the middle of the first millennium BC. When King Xerxes advanced through Macedonia in 480 BC he reported encountering several lions.
Lions were reported to have become extinct in Italy before the year 20 BC and from Western Europe as a whole around the year 1 AD. According to historians, by the year 70 the giant cats were restricted to northern Greece, in the area between the rivers Aliakmon and Nestus.
By the year 100 they became extinct in Eastern Europe as well. After that lions in Europe became restricted to the Caucasus mountains, where a population of Asiatic lions survived all the way into the tenth century.