Behold the Cave Bear!
Last week, the Biblical Museum of Natural History received an astounding donation from Avraham and Rebecca Silverstein of Netanya - an extraordinary collection of taxidermy and other zoological artifacts. It filled some holes in our collection of Biblical animals - we finally have a leopard! And there are also some animals which, while not Biblical, help illustrate other Torah concepts, such as shofars and kashrus.
Aside from the leopard, another important Biblical animal that was missing from our collection was a bear. Bears are mentioned on several occasions in Scripture, and lived wild in Israel until exactly one hundred years ago. But it's proven difficult to acquire a taxidermied bear for the museum. Last year we were offered a bear by one of our taxidermy suppliers, but he wanted 40,000 NIS for a specimen that was only four feet tall. I wasn't going to spend forty thousand shekels on Paddington Bear! But the Silverstein collection included a bear - sort of.
The unquestionable highlight of the collection is the complete skeleton of an extinct cave bear! According to the information on this specimen, it was found over a hundred years ago in a limestone cave near Trieste, Italy. This skeleton, standing over seven feet tall, represents a unique specimen in that all of the bones belong to a single adult individual. Most fossil cave bear mounts on exhibit in European museums are composite skeletons from cave deposits which have preserved the remains of hundreds of bears over long periods of time; sorting for accurate anatomic assembly is virtually impossible. The cave where this specimen was found yielded only one specimen. Thus, the present specimen is a faithful anatomical example of this once great extinct species. Possessing the distinction as the first fossil cave bear skeleton to be mounted in an upright position, the specimen is virtually complete and very well preserved.
The paleontological record indicates that this species of cave bear (Ursus spelaeus) existed almost exclusively in Europe, from approximately 300,000 to 10,000 years ago. Depictions on cave walls by Ice Age humans, and examination of its skeletal structure, indicate that the species resembled a brown bear or grizzly bear at first glance. But Ursus spelaeus was much larger on average and displayed a more domed head and a higher forehead profile. The body had a relatively long neck on a barrel-shaped torso, with limbs rather short but very powerful as compared to those of the living brown bear.
So, it's a spectacular and historically important specimen. And it fills an important Biblical niche in the museum. But the problem is that, as I have taken pains to make clear, the Biblical Museum of Natural History is intended for audiences across the religious spectrum. We don't display anything that would offend the sensitivities of the charedi community. No dinosaurs, no talk about evolution, no talk about the world being millions of years old. So what do we do with a bear that is approximately a hundred thousand years old?
The answer is simple. As I instructed the guides, the only thing that they need to say about the cave bear is that it is extinct (like the re'em). If necessary, they can add that it died before the mabul. There's no need to say exactly how long ago it died!
Ironically, as much as I have tried to keep prehistoric dinosaurs out of the museum, it's some of our most charedi visitors who have brought them up. I recall one of our Israeli chassidic visitors asking me why we don't display dinosaur skeletons. And last week, in a tour group of 60 chassidic children, when I asked them to identify a certain skull, one of them excitedly shouted out, "a dinosaur!" (it was actually a lion.) "Ho ho ho," I chortled, "A dinosaur?! We don't have any dinosaurs here!"
So, this spectacular cave bear is just being presented as a Very Old Bear. As I tell our visitors who ask about dinosaurs, I try to stay away from controversial topics!