OSB archive
OSB archive

Tower lions: ghosts of Africa's past

Pete Wilton

Lion bones found in the Tower of London came from an area of north Africa where no wild lion populations survive today. The finding comes from a study of mitochondrial DNA from two lion skulls, the first lion remains to be found in England since the end of the last Ice Age.

‘According to historic records, lions could be found from north Africa and through the Middle East to India, until the growth of civilisations along the Egyptian Nile and Sinai Peninsula almost 4,000 years ago stopped gene flow, isolating the lion populations,' said Nobuyuki Yamaguchi of the WildCRU at Oxford, one of the authors of the report published in this month's Contributions to Zoology. 'Western north Africa was the nearest region to Europe to sustain lion populations... making it an obvious and practical source for mediaeval merchants. Apart from a tiny population in northwest India, lions had been practically exterminated outside sub-Saharan Africa by the turn of the twentieth century.’ Beth Shapiro and Ross Barnett, of the Ancient Biomolecules Centre at the Department of Zoology, were the other members of the Oxford research team.

Richard Sabin, a co-author from the Natural History Museum, London said: ‘Our results are the first genetic evidence to clearly confirm that lions found during excavations at the Tower of London originated in north Africa. Although we have one of the best mammal collections in the world here at the Natural History Museum, few physical remains survive of the Royal Menagerie. Direct animal trade between Europe and sub-Saharan Africa was not developed until the eighteenth century, so our results provide new insights into the patterns of historic animal trafficking.'

The two skulls were recovered from the moat during excavations in 1936 and 1937, and were recently radiocarbon dated to AD 1280–1385 and AD 1420–1480, making them the earliest confirmed lion remains in the British Isles since the extinction of the Pleistocene cave lion. The lions were members of the Royal Menagerie, established at the Tower of London in mediaeval times and served as a home of exotic animals until it was closed in 1835. Physical examination of the skulls also suggested both the lions were males, as they have longer skulls and larger canine teeth. The skulls are now part of the Natural History Museum’s vast zoological collections.