Neanderthals hunted huge elephants that once roamed northern Europe

neanderthal elephants

() — About 125,000 years ago, huge elephants weighing up to nearly eight carloads each roamed what is now northern Europe.

Scientifically known as Palaeoloxodon antiquus, these imposing animals were the largest land mammals of the Pleistocene, with a height that exceeded 4 meters. Despite their imposing size, the now-extinct straight-tusked elephants were systematically hunted and dismembered for their meat by Neanderthals, according to a new study of the remains of 70 animals found at a central German archaeological site known as Neumark-Nord. , near the city of Halle.

The discovery is shaking up what we know about how extinct hominids, which existed for more than 300,000 years before disappearing around 40,000 years ago, organized their lives. Neanderthals were extremely skilled hunters, knew how to preserve meat and led a more sedentary existence in larger groups than many scholars had anticipated, research suggests.

A distinctive pattern of repetitive cut marks on the surface of well-preserved bones, the same position in different animals, and on the left and right skeletal parts of an individual animal, revealed that giant elephants were dismembered for their meat, fat, and brains. after death, following a more or less standard procedure for a period of about 2,000 years. Since a single adult male weighed 13 metric tons (twice that of an African elephant), the dismemberment 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 bore some cut marks. However, scientists have never been clear whether early humans actively hunted elephants or ate the meat of those that died of natural causes. The large number of elephant bones with the systematic pattern of cut marks puts an end to this debate, according to the authors of the study, published this wednesday in the magazine Science Advances.

According to Wil Roebroeks, co-author of the study and Professor of Paleolithic Archeology at the University of Leiden, Germany, it is likely that Neanderthals used javelins and thrusting spears, which have been found at another archaeological site in Germany, to attack male elephants due to to its larger size and solitary behavior. According to the study, the site’s demographics skewed toward older, male elephants than might be expected if the animals had died naturally.

“It’s about immobilizing these animals or driving them to muddy banks so that their weight works against them,” he said.

“If you can pin one down with a few people and corral them into an area where they get stuck. It’s a matter of finishing them off.”

Sabine Gaudzinski-Windheuser, study author, examines the femur of a large adult male elephant for the presence of cut marks. Credit: Lutz Kindler/MONREPOS

Preparation of game meat

The most surprising thing about the discovery is not that Neanderthals were able to hunt such large animals, but that they knew what to do with the meat, says Britt M. Starkovich, a researcher at the Senckenberg Center for Human Evolution and Paleoenvironment at the University of Tübingen, Germany. in a commentary posted alongside the study.

“The performance is mind-boggling: more than 2,500 daily servings of 4,000 calories per serving. Thus, 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 investigation.

“The Neanderthals knew what they were doing. They knew what kind of individuals to hunt, where to find them, and how to execute the attack. And most importantly, they knew what to expect from mass carnage and an even greater return of meat.”

The Neanderthals who lived there likely knew how to preserve and store meat, perhaps through the use of fire and smoke, Roebroeks said. Sabine Gaudzinski-Windheuser, co-author of the study and Professor of Prehistoric and Protohistoric Archeology at Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz, Germany, noted that it’s also possible that such a meat bonanza was an opportunity to temporarily bring together people from a social network. more espacious.

He explained that the occasion could have perhaps 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, said Gaudzinski-Windheuser, who is also director of the Center for Research Archaeological Monrepos and the Museum of the Evolution of Human Behavior in Neuwied.

“We don’t see it in the archaeological record, but I think the real benefit of this study is that everything is now on the table,” he said.

Neanderthals hunting elephants

The cut marks on the elephant bones, which belonged to about 70 individuals, were systematic. Credit: Sabine Gaudzinski-Windheuser/Lutz Kindler, MONREPOS

Change misperceptions

For a long time, scientists thought that Neanderthals were highly mobile, living in small groups of 20 or fewer people. However, this latest finding suggests that they may have lived in much larger groups and been more sedentary at this particular time and place, when food was plentiful and the climate more favourable. The climate at the time, before the advance of the ice sheets at the beginning of the last ice age, between 100,000 and 25,000 years ago, would have been similar to today.

According to the study, killing a straight-tusked elephant was not an everyday occurrence, with an animal being killed roughly every five to six years here. However, according to the researchers, it is possible that more elephant remains were destroyed, as the site is part of an open-cast mine. Other finds at the site suggest that Neanderthals hunted a wide variety of game in a lake landscape populated by wild horses, fallow deer and red deer.

More generally, the study underscores the fact that Neanderthals were not cave-dwelling brutes as they are routinely depicted in popular culture. In fact, the opposite was true: they were skilled hunters, knew how to process and preserve food, and thrived in different ecosystems and climates. Neanderthals also made sophisticated tools, thread, and art, and buried their dead with care.

“To the more recognizably human traits that we know Neanderthals had, namely 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 food and were occasionally semi-sedentary. or that they sometimes worked in larger groups than we ever imagined,” Starkovich said.

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