What’s the Oldest Lion Fossil Ever Found?

Written by Kyle Glatz
Published: February 3, 2023
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Although lions are some of the deadliest predators in Africa these days, they have not existed for very long in the overall scheme of things. Some studies have found that the Panthera genus diverged from the Felidae family less than 11 million years ago. Lions, as we know them, are less than one million years old.

Speaking of lions and fossils, what are the oldest lion fossils, and where were they found?

Let’s explore the history of lions and the fossil evidence left behind by this genus of large, deadly cats.

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When Did the Earliest Ancestors of Lions First Appear?

Male Lion Roaring

Scientists have found a basal lion-like pantherine felid in Tanzania that lived between 1.7 and 1.2 million years ago.

©Shawn Levin/Shutterstock.com

The origins of lions, and many modern carnivores for that matter, can be traced back about 56 million years to Dormaalocyon latouri. Scientists recovered fossils of this small mammal in Belgium in the early 2010s and reported on them in 2014.

The fossil record of this creature consists of 280 teeth and some ankle bones. Dormaalocyon latouri was nothing like a lion, though. This small creature weighed a few pounds, but it was a carnivore.

Millions of years passed until cat-like creatures from the Pseudaelurus genus appeared. These mammals lived sometime between 20 million and 8 million years ago. They were the last common ancestor of all modern cats. Members of the genus have been found in Europe, Asia, and North America.

However, Panthera blytheae is the earliest known species of the Panthera genus and could have been a common ancestor for all pantherines. This creature apparently lived between 5.95 and 4.1 million years ago. Of course, even though this creature is currently the oldest-known member of Panthera, that information could change with a single discovery. These creatures were similar in size to the clouded leopard and probably did not resemble modern lions.

Scientists have found it difficult to reconcile the fossil record showing the oldest pantherines living in Africa with other studies that point to an Asian origin for them. Nevertheless, scientists have found a basal lion-like pantherine felid in Tanzania that lived between 1.7 and 1.2 million years ago.

When Did Extant Lions First Appear?

Modern lions were not around several million years ago. Instead, the earliest known lion appeared about 680,000 years ago, and it was called Panthera leo fossilis or Panthera fossilis.

This lion descended from the unknown cat that roamed Tanzania 1.7 to 1.2 million years ago and then entered Eurasia at some point about 780,000 years ago. That cat spawned several other lion-like creatures, including Panthera fossilis.

Three lion species appeared after the time of Panthera leo fossilis: Panthera spelaea, Panthera atrox, and Panthera leo. Only the last is still an extant species, Panthera leo leo. Extant lions appeared at some point between 529,000 and 392,000 years ago. The modern maned Panthera leo leo commonly known today appeared about 300,000 years ago or so.

How Old Was the Oldest Lion Fossil Ever Found?

Male lion looks directly into camera

The oldest fossil of a lion was found in Parkfield, Suffolk, in the United Kingdom.

©The Len/Shutterstock.com

The oldest lion fossil ever found is about 680,000 years old and belongs to Panthera leo fossilis. This is not all that surprising, considering that the species was one of the earliest definitive lions. These fossils were found in Parkfield, Suffolk, in the United Kingdom. However, those fossils are not definitively a part of the species. Others found in Italy date to about 610,000 years ago and certainly belonged to Panthera leo fossilis.  

Although these are the oldest lion fossils ever found, they do not belong to an extant species. Fossils belonging to Panthera leo leo are younger, between 529,000 and 392,000 years.

Considering the oldest lion ancestors, though, provides a different perspective and raises some questions. Panthera blytheae is currently the first identified member of the Panthera genus. This creature lived between 5.95 and 4.1 million years ago. The gap between that first ancestor and modern lions is very large. Yet, it also demonstrates the long time that lion-like creatures have lived.

While these are the oldest fossils of an extant lion species, scientists could still find more. The range of all the species of lions is simply massive. Lions have lived throughout vast portions of Africa, Europe, Asia, and North America.  

As a result, scientists could stumble on a fossil discovery that would upend their understanding of the evolution and dispersal of lion species worldwide.

What Did the Oldest Lion Fossil Teach Us?

Roaring male lion

Future discoveries of lion fossils will undoubtedly have much to offer scientists.

©SteffenTravel/Shutterstock.com

The oldest lion fossils helped scientists understand many things about the creatures’ origin. For starters, the fossils of Panthera blytheae provide humans with valuable context for the length of time that lions have been around.

Old lion fossils have also provided information about how lions spread worldwide. Currently, some of the fossils of the oldest lion ancestors are found in Asia, but that doesn’t seem to mesh well with the theories that lions radiated from Africa.

Lion fossils also provide a lot of information about the evolutionary history of the genus. Scientists have examined and reexamined several members of Panthera. During their investigations, they found that some animals once considered part of a species were actually subspecies.

A modern example of this happening is Panthera leo melanochaita, a subspecies of modern lions that live in the southern and eastern parts of Africa.

Lion fossil records have much information to offer regarding other species as well. After all, lions and other big cats diverged from common ancestors. The oldest lion fossils could show how the lions changed in a given time period.

Future discoveries of lion fossils will undoubtedly have much to offer scientists!

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The photo featured at the top of this post is © Nejron Photo/Shutterstock.com


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About the Author

Kyle Glatz is a writer at A-Z-Animals where his primary focus is on geography and mammals. Kyle has been writing for researching and writing about animals and numerous other topics for 10 years, and he holds a Bachelor's Degree in English and Education from Rowan University. A resident of New Jersey, Kyle enjoys reading, writing, and playing video games.

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