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Hunting of European straight-tusked elephants was widespread among Neanderthals 125,000 years ago

Finds uncovered in the east of Germany show that Neanderthals stored and preserved vast amounts of meat and/or temporarily aggregated in larger groups to exploit the spoils

Incisions some 5 millimeters in length made by Neanderthals on the Palaeoloxodon antiquus pelvic bone from Gröbern © Lutz Kindler, LEIZA

Neanderthal cut marks

Hunting the now extinct European straight-tusked elephant (Palaeoloxodon antiquus) was widespread among Neanderthals. This is the conclusion reached by a research team consisting of members of Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (JGU), the Leibniz-Zentrum für Archäologie (LEIZA), also based in Mainz, and Leiden University in the Netherlands. The study has recently been published in the journal PNAS. Using magnifying glasses and digital microscopes, the researchers closely examined the 125,000 years old remains of elephants that were discovered in Gröbern in Saxony-Anhalt and Taubach in Thuringia, Germany, decades ago. The team was able to identify cut marks made by Neanderthal stone tools that indicate that the animals must have been hunted before they were extensively butchered.  

Active hunters

Two years ago, while analyzing the large bone assemblage from the Neumark-Nord site, also in Saxony-Anhalt, the team discovered the very first evidence that Neanderthals actively hunted straight-tusked elephants. This study was published in Science Advances in early 2023. "The results of the more recent examination of the bones from Gröbern and Taubach now show that the hunting of these elephants by Neanderthals was not an isolated phenomenon but must have been a more prevalent activity," emphasized Sabine Gaudzinski-Windheuser, Professor of Prehistoric and Protohistoric Archaeology at JGU and Director of the Archaeological Research Center and Museum of Human Behavioral Evolution MONREPOS in Neuwied, an institute run under the aegis of LEIZA.

Dr. Lutz Kindler documenting fragments of Palaeoloxodon antiquus teeth discovered in Taubach © Wil Roebroeks, Leiden University

The carcass of a straight-tusked elephant bull would have been sufficient to cover the daily calorie requirements of 2,500 Neanderthals

Palaeoloxodon antiquus roamed the landscapes of Europe and Western Asia 800,000 to 100,000 years ago. With shoulder heights of up to four meters and body masses of up to 13 tonnes, the European straight-tusked elephant was the largest land-living animal at the time, significantly larger than today's African and Asian elephants, and even bigger than the extinct woolly mammoth. "We have estimated that the meat and fat that would have been supplied by the body of an adult Palaeoloxodon antiquus bull would have been sufficient to satisfy the daily calorie intake of at least 2,500 adult Neanderthals," explained Gaudzinski-Windheuser. "This is a significant number because it furnishes us with new insights into the social behavior of Neanderthals." So far, research had generally assumed that Neanderthals operated in groups of no more than 20 individuals. The information now obtained in relation to the hunting of straight-tusked elephants indicates that Neanderthals must have gathered, at least temporarily, in larger groups or had mastered techniques that allowed them to preserve and store large quantities of foodstuffs – or both. 

Article published in Open Access

Read the full article on the website of PNAS
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