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
News
Sir David Attenborough
people
Life and Style
Young girl and bowl of cereal
food + drink
Arts and Entertainment
'The Archers' has an audience of about five million
radioA growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried
News
news
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Sport
football
News
i100
Life and Style
David Bowie by Duffy
fashion
Arts and Entertainment
Hell, yeah: members of the 369th Infantry arrive back in New York
booksWorld War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel
News
advertisingVideo: The company that brought you the 'Bud' 'Weis' 'Er' frogs and 'Wasssssup' ads, has something up its sleeve for Sunday
Environment
Dame Vivienne Westwood speaking at a fracking protest outside Parliament on Monday (AP)
environment
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

Tradewind Recruitment: English Teacher

Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: This post arises as a result of the need to...

Tradewind Recruitment: Class Teacher Required ASAP In Uminster

£120 - £150 per annum: Tradewind Recruitment: I am recruiting on instruction o...

Ashdown Group: Head of Finance - Financial Director - London - £70,000

£70000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Head of Finance - Financial Controller - Fina...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Executive - Wimbledon, SW London

£24000 - £28000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Marketing Executive - Wim...

Day In a Page

Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee
World War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel

Max Brooks honours Harlem Hellfighters

The author talks about race, legacy and his Will Smith film option to Tim Walker
Valentine's Day cards: 5 best online card shops

Don't leave it to the petrol station: The best online card shops for Valentine's Day

Can't find a card you like on the high street? Try one of these sites for individual, personalised options, whatever your taste
Greece elections: In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza

Greece elections

In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza, says Patrick Cockburn
Holocaust Memorial Day: Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears

Holocaust Memorial Day

Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears over Europe
Fortitude and the Arctic attraction: Our fascination with the last great wilderness

Magnetic north

The Arctic has always exerted a pull, from Greek myth to new thriller Fortitude. Gerard Gilbert considers what's behind our fascination with the last great wilderness
Homeless Veterans appeal: Homeless in Wales can find inspiration from Daniel’s story

Homeless Veterans appeal

Homeless in Wales can find inspiration from Daniel’s story
Front National family feud? Marine Le Pen and her relatives clash over French far-right party's response to Paris terror attacks

Front National family feud?

Marine Le Pen and her relatives clash over French far-right party's response to Paris terror attacks
Pot of gold: tasting the world’s most expensive tea

Pot of gold

Tasting the world’s most expensive tea
10 best wildlife-watching experiences: From hen harriers to porpoises

From hen harriers to porpoises: 10 best wildlife-watching experiences

While many of Britain's birds have flown south for the winter, it's still a great time to get outside for a spot of twitching
Nick Easter: 'I don’t want just to hold tackle bags, I want to be out there'

'I don’t want just to hold tackle bags, I want to be out there'

Nick Easter targeting World Cup place after England recall