Royal Menagerie lions uncovered

A pair of lion skulls excavated from the moat around the Tower of London and dating to the medieval period belong to an extinct subspecies of Barbary lion which died out in the early 1920s, a study has found.

An analysis of the DNA extracted from the skulls has found that both lions share the same genetic traits as the large subspecies which had distinctive black manes and once lived in the Morocco region of north-west Africa until it disappeared nearly a century ago.

The two skulls were first recovered from the Tower’s moat during excavations in 1936 and 1937 but the precise geographical origin of the famous lions of the Royal Menagerie – first established by King John who reigned between 1199 and 1216 – was unknown.

“Until now we didn’t have any strong evidence that they were from North Africa. There was no documentary evidence for instance. They could have come from Asia or even from other parts of the Mediterranean,” said Richard Sabin, curator of mammals at the Natural History Museum in London.

“Lions are very charismatic large cats that have been imported into Europe for various purposes since early historic times. We’ve not known, however, until now the exact geographical origin of the animals found in London,” Dr Sabin 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,” he added.

Radiocarbon tests on the skulls show that one is dated to between 1280 and 1385 and the other is dated to between 1420 and 1480. Both were young males of about three or four years of age and could have been born in the Royal Menagerie at the Tower of London rather than been shipped directly from north Africa, Dr Sabin said.

“Barbary lions were probably the largest of all the subspecies of lion. They had very long, black, shaggy manes and would have been very imposing. Visitors to the King would have had to pass through Lion Tower where the cats were kept in cages,” he said.

Nobuyuki Yamaguchi, who carried out the genetic analysis of the lions’ bones said that a contiguous population of lions once stretched from north Africa through the Middle East to India, until the growth of the Egyptian civilisation about 4,000 years ago divided the lions into separating breeding populations. “Western north Africa was the nearest region to Europe to sustain lion populations until the early 20th Century, making it an obvious and practical source for medieval merchants,” Dr Yamaguchi said.

“Apart from a tiny population in northwest India, lions had been practically exterminated outside sub-Saharan Africa by the turn of the 20th Century.”

The Royal Menagerie was first established in Woodstock near Oxford before being relocated to the Tower of London. The first residents were three leopards sent to Henry III by the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II in 1235. It later on housed a number of exotic animals and was effectively the private zoo of successive kings and queens until it was closed by the Duke of Wellington in 1835 and the contents transferred to Regent’s Park to become London Zoo.

“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,” Dr Sabin said.

“Direct animal trade between Europe and sub-Saharan Africa was not developed until the 18th Century, so our results provide new insights into the patterns of historic animal trading,” he said.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Senior Digital Marketing Consultant

£28000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Senior Digital Marketing Cons...

Recruitment Genius: Assistant Stores Keeper

£16640 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Assistant Stores Keeper is r...

Recruitment Genius: Claims Administrator

£16000 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an excellent opportunit...

Recruitment Genius: Software Developer - C# / ASP.NET / SQL

£17000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Developer required to join a bu...

Day In a Page

Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

Everyone is talking about The Trews

Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living