Neanderthals hunted twice as many elephants as today, scientists find

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Through analysis of 125,000-year-old bones and animal remains, a team of archaeologists is now providing evidence that Neanderthals may have hunted straight-tusked elephants (Palaeoloxodon antiquus), the largest land mammals of the Pleistocene. Twice as large as today’s African elephants, they can reach 4.5 meters in height and weigh almost 13 tons. One of these specimens could feed hundreds of people for a week!

In 2021, archaeologist Sabina Gaudzinski-Windhäuser of the Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz began examining the remains of dozens of elephants that were unearthed in the 1980s and 1990s at the Neumark-Nord site, a lignite quarry near the city of Halle. , Germany. A large number of animal (and plant) remains come from this quarry and give a good idea of ​​a 125,000 year old ecosystem.

But the ivory bones found at the site, previously studied by Italian paleontologists, greatly intrigued experts: they belonged to more than 70 elephants, mostly adult males. “We were wondering what the hell are 70 elephants doing there? “Remembers Lutz Kindler, archeozoologist at the Center for Archaeological Research of MONREPO and co-author of the study.


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Bones marked by butchering and removal of flesh

Present in Europe and Western Asia from 800,000 to 100,000 years ago, straight-tusked elephants were very impressive animals. Their spatiotemporal distribution overlapped that of western Eurasian hominids such as Neanderthals and earlier populations. The discovery of the skeletal remains of these large elephants, found near the remains of stone tools, has led to various speculations about the nature of their interaction with humans: did they act as scavengers, feeding on the flesh of animals that died of natural death, or did they prey on them?

A researcher examines a 125,000-year-old straight-tusk elephant thighbone found in northern Germany. © Lutz Kindler/MONREPOS/AFP

Re-examining under a microscope some 3,400 elephant bones collected at the site, Kindler and Gaudzinsky-Windhäuser found scuffs and scrapes on nearly all of them—traces that were undoubtedly left by stone tools in skinning and butchering the animal. Their results, published in the journal Science Advances, prove for the first time that several generations of Neanderthals hunted these huge mammals in groups for more than 2,000 years.

elephant bone tool marks

On the bones of elephants with straight tusks, traces were found characteristic of butchering cattle. © Lutz Kindler/MONREPOS/AFP

“They really hunted for every bit of meat and fat,” adds Wil Robrux, an archaeologist at Leiden University and co-author of the study. The bones showed no signs of the passage of scavengers such as wolves or hyenas, suggesting they had nothing left.

If this hunting activity was mainly focused on the old bull elephants, it is because the latter led a largely solitary life, not being protected by the herd, and therefore represented an easier target, the Leiden University press release explains. “Focusing on adult, aged males brought hunters the most profit at a significantly lower risk,” the researchers conclude.

The hunting strategy was mainly based on immobilizing the prey, such as pushing it into pits or muddy areas; the hunters then finished them off with wooden spears, they explain.

Enough to feed 350 people in a week!

This discovery sheds new light on the lives of our ancestors. “These results have important implications for our view of subsistence strategies and possibly the social organization of Neanderthals during the last interglacial,” the researchers write in the journal Science Advances. The degree of organization required to cut and butcher the animals, and the amount of food they provided, does suggest that Neanderthals formed perhaps much larger social groups than previously thought.

The harvest from such hunting was indeed considerable: the researchers calculated that a ten-ton bull elephant – one of the “smallest” jigs found in the study area – provided at least 2,500 daily portions of fat and meat, which would be enough to feed 350 people per day. day. per week or 100 people per month! The complete “processing” of an average adult male weighing about 10 tons would take a significant amount of time: 3 to 5 days if 25 people were involved in the process, the team estimated.

As a result, this animal was clearly not hunted every day. Considering the approximately 300 years during which the remains of 52 individuals accumulated at this site, the researchers conclude that such an elephant was hunted approximately every 5-6 years. Neanderthals mainly hunted much smaller animals (deer, gazelles or horses).

These colossal amounts of food involved either a large group of consumers or the introduction of “long-term” methods of meat preservation and storage. Until now, experts believed that Neanderthals lived in small, highly mobile groups of no more than about 20 individuals; but this study suggests that they were divided into much larger groups – at least in this region. “Why would you slaughter a whole elephant if you’d lose half your portions?” Kindler notes.

S. Gaudzinski-Windhäuser et al., Science Advances.

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