Rescuing the Bones of Prehistoric Bear and Deer

A year ago, my friend Tonči Radja of “Špiljar” speleology club, informed me of a very curious find in one of the pits of Biokovo. Unlike something he has ever seen, he found complete skeletons of bear and deer at the bottom of one hard to reach pit near Biokovsko selo.

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Snow on Biokovo

To get the bones out and to finance research, we were asked for some funds but had to wait till November to make the donation. It is not a big donation but every little helps in the situation when our economy is struggling. So, after we made a donation, all that was left was to set the date for action!

The day chosen was Sunday, December 10th and we met in Split till the entire crew gathered. It was a good day for practice for younger members of “Špiljar”, too! The pit Zovine is about 60 meters (cc 180 ft) deep with a small lake at the bottom. It is REALLY difficult to find it without a guide!

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Meeting point

The entire terrain is extremely inhospitable and difficult but, at some point in time, people lived even here. At least for some part of the year while there was pasture.

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Abandoned hut

Once we were all the meeting point and everyone who would be going down was ready, we headed into the woods.

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Not exactly a forest but a labyrinth of thin trees and limestone rock formations, deep pits and small amphitheaters. Basically, the terrain is very difficult to move through and you really have to know where you are going and have a local guide to get to the pit.

 

Which is good. As the pit is hard to notice and fairly easy to fall into if coming from a different direction.

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The pit

Once at the location, the group set all the gear and ropes and assigned the roles and sequence who is going first, second…and so on.

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The pit is also great for training young crew so there was a number of beginners with us. There is also a small lake at the bottom and I wish I am able to get down. It did not take long, for the rest of the team, to get to the bottom and soon, the first remains started coming up. There were 5 full bags with bones of both animals quite nicely preserved.

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Next stop was Biokovsko selo where we were supposed to meet with the biologists from the Museum of Natural History of Split.

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Biokovsko selo

This is a tiny hamlet with only few inhabitants left. The traces of hard life are evident everywhere. Closed doors that open rarely.

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And soon we all met in front of our host’s place to show what was found and for biologists to pack it properly and send for analysis and conservation.

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The finds were extraordinary according to biologists! Apparently, at least 10 000 years old but a proper dating and analysis are needed. Quite proud that we enabled this and hope to be able to help even more in the future.

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Deer antlers
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Bear scull and jaw

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It was an exciting day and a proper way to finish this successful operation was to have a small party at our host’s home. It does not go without grilled meat prepared the classic way.

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And it was great to see our host’s pride and joy!

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The sun slowly set behind Biokovo. In this part of Zagora (hinterland), days are short as massive Biokovo casts a long shadow… Shadow that will soon very few notice.

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Wonders of Dalmatian karst

Dalmatian landscape is made up of mostly limestone. Karst, as it is a scientific name for it, is by a definition a landscape formed from the dissolution of soluble rocks such as limestone, dolomite, and gypsum. It is characterized by underground drainage systems with sinkholes and caves.

So there are A LOT of caves in Croatia! Many known for millenia and explored but still hundreds all over the country that have not been discovered.

We had a great opportunity last month to visit two very special caves in Dalmatian hinterland. One, Velika Ćulumova pećina, is near Kijevo and Vrlika and is well known for its massive bat colony.

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Dinara mountain in the distance
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Velika Ćulumova pećina is clearly marked

This cave is easy to visit – with permits! – as it does not have drops and serious differences in heights. The initial descent is some 7 meters difference from the entrance and then it is fairly flat all 360 meters of its length. But it is also very decorated and considered to be one of the most beautiful caves in this part of the country.

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The colony of bats inside is several thousand strong and the sound of them squeaking above your head may not be the most pleasant sound you ever heard. We tried not to disturb them and I even turned off my strong helmet light. I have a custom helmet light that makes all of modern helmet lights shamefully weak so I turned it off in the big hall with bats. Bats are not blind, contrary to general opinion. We also kept as quiet as possible.

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All over the cave, mud like leyer of bat dung is found. The guano does not smell nice and there is a LOT of it! Some places even knee deep so we all had boots on. It is that black matter on the ground.

We continued exploring and finally reached the last hall. Evidence of human devastation is very present as many of the ornaments have been broken and taken away… There are even graffiti from 1930s in the last hall. Sad.

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I do think the entrance should be closed by some sort of iron gates like on other protected caves in order to preserve the cave and its bats. Not everyone is responsible and loves nature…

Next stop was a very special treat!

There are caves and pits that have been used as places of worship, shelters and even storage facilities but very few as wells. One of them – and it is simply a marvel of traditional architecture – is cave near Kistanje in Bukovica region of Dalmatia.

One can reach it by taking a main trail though the fields near the village of Bezbradice.

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This traditional dirt road is work of perfection with all these flat rocks making up a massive wall leading to the actual well and deeper in the fields.

It was about 34 Celsius (93 F) and there was no place to hide from the hot sun. But then we reached the well. It is basically a combination of a man made structure and a cave that, long time ago, someone thought to be an excellent source of fresh water for most of the year.

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In order to get to the water, locals build a structure with several steps all the way down to the actual well. The water can get awfully high as seen from the marks it left on much higher level of the well.

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The water is so still that I thought there was nothing there till we threw a small rock. We did not have any vessel to get water from below as it was quite lower than the last step but I will return.

According to local legends, the water from this cave is part of a large, underground river Marica. This water has healing powers and healed fertility issues with one local girl long time ago. Just legends or…? In any case, this is one of most wonderful spots I have seen in a while! It looks almost as entrance to the underworld. Maybe it is…

Wonderful world of Dalmatian karst does not stop to surprise!

 

Vrdovo plateau and Vodena peća cave

I have never been to Vrdovo before. This part of hinterland I am not very familiar with and I am enjoying every opportunity to explore it. Few days before Christmas, we were invited to go searching for some newly discovered caves. This is a relative term as most of the caves have been “discovered” a while back but most of them were known only to the local cattle herders and never explored. There is one very interesting story in development focusing on one of the pits on Vrdovo but more on it when it happens.

Kamešnica mountain seen from Vrdovo
Kamešnica mountain seen from Vrdovo

In short, Vrdovo is a mountain plateau between Kamešnica and Dinara and just below Vještića  hill (Witches’ hill) in Hercegovina. Very barren and rocky, it was always serving just as a pasture with few patches of fertile land. Numerous old stone huts still serve as evidence of once difficult life as most of the cattle herders are now gone…

“Here – There” sign

As our search for caves was not producing any results, we decided to visit a well known and explored Vodena peća cave closer to Sinj. Passing the “Here – There ” sign, we continued driving through the hillside on the well maintained dirt road. From the west, the fist signs of now infamous storm “Ines” were approaching with temperature dropping fast…

The storm approaching with sunset
The storm approaching with sunset

Even though the forecast was quite bad and with numerous warnings, the next day, a group of friends decided to visit Vrdovo in the snow not taking the warnings seriously. It almost costed them their lives as the rescue team had serious difficulty reaching them. Nature is not to be taken lightly…

And we soon reached Vodena peća cave.  Another well hidden entrance!

Vodena peća entrance
Vodena peća entrance

The name implies it is full of water but we did not encounter anything serious. However, the cave is just beautiful masterpiece of water!

Inside the cave
Inside the cave

The main canal is fairly long – about 100 or so meters. It is big and spacious for nearly the entire length and it filled with both stalactites and stalagmites and all sorts of decorations.

Colors of the underground
Colors of the underground
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“Raining”
The grand interior of the main canal
The grand interior of the main canal

And there is another canal of the this beautiful cave. Not as attractive for general public as it is one scary, 80 meters deep straight pit! We entered the first section of the second canal just to see what it looks like but it is much demanding than the main canal. The second canal is for serious cavers only!

And for bats.

Greater horseshoe bat (Rhinolophus ferrumequinum)
Greater horseshoe bat (Rhinolophus ferrumequinum)

There are only few sleeping through the winter hanging from the cave ceiling. I think this is Veliki potkovnjak or Greater horseshoe bat (Rhinolophus ferrumequinum) in English but please correct me if I am wrong. Out of nearly 1150 different species of bats in the World, there are 52 in Croatia and 35 are under strict protection. There are 5000 + species of mammals on planet Earthy and one fifth are bats! While in the past, the house that was visited by a bat was a blessed one, recently, due to modern day education and influence of vampire movies, bats are considered “scary and dangerous”. Far from that, they are one of the very important parts of every eco system.
One of the greatest threat to these fragile creatures is posed by the wind turbines and it is estimated, in Germany, that in the past 10 years, over 2 mil bats have been killed …

Hibernating ...
Hibernating …

Nature should just be admired and left alone.