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Some 125,000 years ago, huge elephants weighing as much as eight cars each wandered into what is now North Europe.
Known scientifically as Palaeoloxodon antiquus, the towering animals were the largest land mammals of the Pleistocene, reaching over 13 feet (4 meters) in height. Despite this imposing size, the now extinct straight tusked elephants were routinely hunted and systematically butchered by Neanderthals, according to a new study of the remains of 70 of the animals found at a central German site known as Neumark-Nord, near the town of Halle.
The discovery shakes things up a bit we know how the extinct hominins, which existed for more than 300,000 years before disappearing about 40,000 years ago, organized their lives. Neanderthals were extremely skilled hunters, knew how to store meat and lived a more settled existence in groups larger than many scientists had expected, the study found.
A clear pattern of repetitive cuts on the surface of the well-preserved bones—the same position on different animals and on the left and right skeletal parts of an individual animal—revealed that the giant elephants were dismembered for their flesh, fat, and brains after the dead, according to a more or less standard procedure over a period of about 2000 years. Since a single adult male weighed 13 tons (twice as much as an African elephant), the slaughter process likely involved a large number of people and took days to complete.
Stone tools have been found in Northern Europe with other remains of straight-tusked elephants that had some lacerations. However, scientists have never been clear on whether early humans actively hunted elephants or not collected flesh of those who died of natural causes. The sheer number of elephant bones with the systematic pattern of cuts has put this debate to rest, said the authors of the study, published Wednesday in the journal Science Advances.
Neanderthals likely used thrusting and throwing spears, found at another site in Germany, to attack male elephants because of their larger size and solitary behavior, said co-author Wil Roebroeks, a professor of Paleolithic archeology at Leiden University in Germany. The site’s demographics tended toward older and male elephants than would be expected if the animals had died naturally, the study said.
“It’s a matter of immobilizing these animals or driving them to muddy banks so that their weight works against them,” he said. “If you can immobilize one with a few people and corner them in an area where they get trapped. It’s a matter of finishing them.”
The most surprising thing about the discovery wasn’t that Neanderthals were able to hunt such large animals, but that they knew what to do with the meat, said Britt M. Starkovich, a researcher at the Senckenberg Center for Human Evolution and Paleoenvironment. at the University of Tübingen in Germany, in commentary published alongside the study.
“The yield is mind-boggling: over 2,500 daily servings of 4,000 calories per serving. So a group of 25 foragers could eat a straight-tusked elephant for 3 months, 100 foragers could eat for a month, and 350 people could eat for a week,” wrote Starkovich, who was not involved in the study.
“Neanderthals knew what they were doing. They knew what kinds of individuals to hunt, where to find them, and how to make the attack. Crucially, they knew what to expect with a huge butchery effort and an even bigger meat return.
The Neanderthals who lived there likely knew how to preserve and preserve meat, perhaps through the use of fire and smoke, Roebroeks said. It’s also possible that such a meat bonanza was an occasion for temporary gatherings of people from a larger social network, said study co-author Sabine Gaudzinski-Windheuser, a professor of prehistoric and protohistoric archaeology. at the Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz, Germany.
She explained that perhaps the occasion could have served as a marriage market. An October 2022 study based on ancient DNA from a small group of Neanderthals living in what is now Siberia suggested that women married outside their own community, noted Gaudzinski-Windheuser, who is also director of the Monrepos Archaeological Research Center and Museum of Human Behavioral Evolution in Neuwied.
“We don’t see that in the archaeological record, but I think the real benefit of this study is that everything is on the table now,” she said.
Scientists long thought that Neanderthals were highly mobile and lived in small groups of 20 or fewer. However, this latter finding suggested that they may have lived in much larger groups and were more sedentary at this particular place and time, when food was plentiful and the climate favorable. The climate at that time – before the ice sheets advanced at the start of the last ice age about 100,000 to 25,000 years ago – would have been similar to today’s conditions.
Killing a tusked elephant would not have been an everyday occurrence, the study found, with about one animal killed every five to six years at this location based on the number found. It’s possible more elephant remains were destroyed, however, because the site is part of an open-pit mine, the researchers said. Other finds at the site suggested that Neanderthals hunted a wide variety of animals in a lakescape populated by game horses, fallow deer and red deer.
More broadly, the study underscores the fact that Neanderthals were not brutal cave dwellers so often portrayed in popular culture. In fact, the opposite is true: they were skilled hunters, understood how to process and store food, and thrived in different ecosystems and climates. Neanderthals also made sophisticated tools, yarn and art, and they buried their dead with care.
“For the more recognizable human traits that we know Neanderthals had — caring for the sick, burying their dead, and the occasional symbolic representation — we now also have to consider that they had preservation technologies to store and finish food.” were semi-sedentary or that they sometimes operated in groups that were larger than we ever imagined,” Starkovich said.