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Neanderthals hunted straight-tusked elephants, 125,000 years ago

A Leiden and Mainz (Germany) based team studies the activities of early humans in a 125,000 years old Last Interglacial ecosystem, formerly exposed in a large open cast brown coal pit near Halle (Germany). The Last Interglacial is an important warm-temperate period, showing the full flora and fauna under a climate very similar to the present one and hence considered a good baseline for “natural” biodiversity, devoid of human influence. However, the team recently showed that already 125,000 years ago, human fire use created a distinct anthropogenic footprint in the Last Interglacial vegetation history in central Germany. Now, their new study adds an important layer to our knowledge of hominin activities there.

The first author of the paper, Sabine Gaudzinski-Windheuser (height 160 cm), next to a life-sized reconstruction of an adult male straight-tusked elephant (Palaeoloxodon antiquus), in the Landesmuseum für Vorgeschichte, Halle, Germany (Picture Lutz Kindler, MONREPOS)

Straight-tusked elephants were the largest land-living animals of the last three million years. With shoulder heights up to about 4 meters and body masses up to 13 tons, they were much larger than present-day African and Asian elephants. The remains of at least 57 of these elephants, dating to about 125,000 years ago and well-preserved in fine-grained lake sediments, were rescue-excavated during quarrying work in a huge brown coal pit near Halle (Germany), between 1985 and 1996. The elephants from this site, Neumark-Nord 1, constitute the world’s largest assemblage of Palaeoloxodon antiquus, the scientific name of these Pleistocene giants.  

Sabine Gaudzinski-Windheuser examining the femur of a large adult male elephant for the presence of cut marks, for closer microscopic inspection later (Picture Lutz Kindler, MONREPOS)

A closer look

The rich elephant material from Neumark-Nord had previously been studied by a team of Italian palaeontologists, who focused on the body size and shape, age at death, and sexual dimorphism. Fifteen years ago, they concluded that this was a very peculiar assemblage, with a strongly “unbalanced” mortality profile (almost only adult individuals) and a striking dominance of males, a pattern not observed so far in either fossil or recent elephant populations and difficult to explain. When team Sabine Gaudzinski-Windheuser performed the first archaeozoological survey of some of the elephant bones, in early 2021, she immediately identified traces of what might have caused the peculiarity of this assemblage: human activity, reflected in the form of clear-cut marks on the bones, created by stone tools during butchering.

Her discovery of unambiguous cut marks, unnoticed during earlier analyses by palaeontologists, initiated our labor-intensive study of the elephant remains from Neumark-Nord 1. Given the uniqueness of the material and the possible implications of the study, we decided to analyze the whole assemblage, which consisted of thousands of bones and bone fragments. Months in a row, the large crates in which individual elephant remains were stored in the reserves of the Landesmuseum für Vorgeschichte, were opened; checking the written documentation; team-lifting large and heavy bones; carefully turning them to study their surfaces; handling every piece of bone; identifying its location in the skeleton; locating anthropogenic and/or (very rare) carnivore modifications; and documenting each trace photographically. In total, 3122 faunal remains were analyzed this way.

Cut marks on a foot bone of an elephant (Individual E30), made by stone tools during disarticulation of the foot (Scale bar = 5 mm) (Picture Sabine Gaudzinski-Windheuser/Lutz Kindler, MONREPOS)

Adults only?

Our detailed analysis of the finds, now published in Science Advances, demonstrates that hunting these giant animals and completely butchering them was part of Neanderthal subsistence activities at this location, during minimally 2,000 years, i.e. over dozens of generations. This constitutes the first clear-cut evidence of elephant hunting in human evolution. Adult and old male individuals, much larger than the females, are overrepresented in the assemblage; probably because, as with present-day elephants, male adult elephants kept to themselves: compared to females, they were easier to approach closely without the protection of a herd. Since they were also much larger, hunting them would have yielded much higher returns, for significantly less risk. A large range of other animals was hunted in this Last Interglacial water-rich environment, including horses, bovids, red deer, and fallow deer, their butchered bones having been recovered in our excavations in the form of tens of thousands of bone fragments.

Deep cut marks on the heel bone of a male elephant (Individual E24), ~50 years of age at death. Easily visible with the naked eye, the longest cut mark in the center of the picture is c. 4 cm. Disarticulation of foot bones enabled access to the rich fat deposits in the elephant’s foot cushions (Picture Wil Roebroeks, Leiden University)

Neanderthal cooperation and group size

Hunting these large elephants demanded close cooperation between participating group members, who probably used the muddy shores of the lake to immobilize their prey and kill them with thrusting spears. Subsequent processing of the animals called for a substantial time investment and again, cooperation. Regarding the amount of time a Neanderthal group would need to skin, strip all meat from bones, remove all edible material including the fat-rich foot cushions, and dry or smoke the meat from an adult male P. antiquus, we suggest, as a very rough estimate, that this could be done in 3-5 days if 25 individuals were involved in the process.  We calculate that a 10-ton elephant - not the largest one at Neumark-Nord - could have yielded minimally 2500 adult Neanderthal daily rations of 4,000 kcal, consisting of a safe mixture of protein and fat from one animal only.

These figures are important: they suggest that Neanderthals, at least temporarily, congregated in larger groups than the c. 20 individuals (including children) usually seen as the maximum size of their local groups, and/or that they had cultural means for large-scale food preservation and storage. We do leave both options open but emphasize that both are socially and cognitively important findings, which contribute to our understanding of the range of variation in Neanderthal behaviour, in ways that were unknown before this study, especially at this level of detail.

We know, however, that animal products did not constitute the only food source for hunter-gatherers, 125,000 years ago: plant foods were nutritionally very important,  but are difficult to identify in the archaeological record, in contrast to the skeletal remains of prey animals. Some traces of possible plant foods have been identified in the Neumark-Nord sites in previous studies. Leiden University’s Amanda Henry is a pioneer in the study of the role of plant food in human evolution, and has been developing the use of plant microremains from archaeological contexts as markers of prehistoric diet.

Discovery through destruction

The Neumark-Nord site complex was discovered in the 1980s, by German archaeologist Dietrich Mania, who led a long series of rescue excavations in the large brown coal quarry, when the area was part of the German Democratic Republic as well as a few years after the fall of the Berlin wall. When the brown coal quarrying stopped and funds became available to excavate some of the sites discovered by Mania and his co-workers in the periphery of the huge lignite pit, our team carried out large-scale systematic excavations from 2004 to 2008, enlisting in total c. 200 international students and volunteers.

Excavations at Neumark-Nord 2, summer 2007, during reclamation works on the margins of the former lignite pit. In the background, the ~100 m deep and abandoned brown coal quarry is gradually being turned into a recreational lake. The location of this excavation has also been flooded since (Picture Wil Roebroeks, Leiden University)

Neumark-Nord is amongst the largest Pleistocene archaeological site complexes and stands out through its extraordinary preservation of Last Interglacial flora and fauna. Most palaeolithic sites we know through small-scale excavations only: a few dozen square meters in a rock shelter, or at best a few hundred square meters excavated in open-air settings. The large scale ( c. 30 ha) of the Neumark-Nord exposures in combination with the excellent preservation there provides us with a unique possibility to study early human behaviour and its ecological background.

Our team’s ongoing work includes a substantial re-analysis of the rich assemblages excavated in the 1980s and 1990s. This has for instance yielded evidence for close-range hunting of deer by Neanderthals, in the form of the earliest hunting lesions on bones. In 2021, our group published high-resolution data demonstrating that Neanderthals visibly impacted their environment there, with tree cover retreating upon their arrival, and vegetation staying open during the approximately 2,000 years of their presence, which included abundant use of fire. Thus far, these data constitute the earliest clear case of anthropogenic landscape modification in human evolution.

Large-scale stable isotope and ancient DNA studies of the faunal remains from these landscapes are ongoing, and will substantially add to our knowledge of this interglacial ecosystem and the role of humans therein.

Our Leiden co-author Katharine MacDonald passed away during the review of this paper. We have dedicated the paper to Kathy’s memory.

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