Around 125,000 years ago, Neanderthals gathered on the muddy shores of a lake in east-central Germany to hunt enormous elephants. They used sharp stone tools to harvest up to 4 tons of meat from each animal.
A recent study sheds new light on these ancient human relatives, suggesting that they may have formed larger social groups than previously thought, based on the level of organization required for the butchery and the amount of food available.
The discovery was made in Neumark-Nord in the 1980s when a group of coal miners discovered a collection of animal bones and stone tools. Over the next decade, archaeologists observed the mining work and retrieved bones and tools from a large area.
The bones and tusks of more than 70 mostly adult male straight-tusked elephants (Palaeoloxodon antiquus), an extinct species nearly twice the size of modern African elephants that stood nearly 4 meters tall at the shoulder, were discovered during the Eemian interglacial, 75,000 years before modern humans arrived in Western Europe. Most had been left in dozens of piles along the ancient lakeshore over the course of about 300 years.
“We wondered, ‘What the hell are 70 elephants doing there?’” says Lutz Kindler, an archaeozoologist at the MONREPOS Archaeological Research Center.
To find out, he and his colleague Sabine Gaudzinski-Windheuser, also an archaeozoologist at MONREPOS, spent months examining the 3400 elephant bones, which are currently stored in a warehouse. Some weighted dozens of kilograms and required a forklift to move. Gaudzinski-Windheuser claims that nearly every bone showed signs of butchery when examined under a microscope.
Although scientists have long known that Neanderthals were capable hunters, these cutmarks “seem to be the first evidence of large-scale elephant hunting,” said April Nowell, an archaeologist at the University of Victoria who was not involved with the study.
The hunters were thorough, as shown by gouges and scratches on nearly every bone. “They really went for every scrap of meat and fat,” says Wil Roebroeks, an archaeologist at the University of Leiden and study co-author. The bones hadn’t been gnawed by scavengers like wolves or hyenas, suggesting nothing left for them.
According to the researchers, the meat from a single elephant would have been enough to feed 350 people for a week or 100 people for a month. The elephant bounty suggests far larger groups—big enough to slaughter and process an entire elephant and big enough to consume it—once lived near the site, the researchers report today in Science Advances. “This is really hard and time-consuming work,” Kindler says. “Why would you slaughter the whole elephant if you’re going to waste half the portions?”
The elephants provided ideal samples for this study, the authors noted. There’s no way to know whether hundreds of slaughtered horses or gazelles were killed at the same time at ancient sites. “If you find 100 butchered horses, you don’t know if it was one event or 20,” Roebroeks says. “With an elephant, it’s clear Neanderthals were able to deal with a huge amount of food in one go.”
The researchers “make a good case these huge food packages mean much larger groups,” added University of Reading archaeologist Annemieke Milks, who was not involved in the research. “Maybe it’s a large, seasonal gathering, or they’re storing food—or both.”
Nowell agrees, adding that killing an elephant must have required careful orchestration. Adult males, who roam alone without the protection of a female-led herd, were most likely targeted by the hunters. “It would necessitate a high level of competence in sequencing and planning out the hunt and coordinating everybody.”
That doesn’t mean Neanderthals always lived and worked in large groups. However, the findings, like other recent findings, suggest that human ancestors were more sophisticated than previously thought, capable of adapting their behavior to a wide variety of environments and climates. “If one regional group of Neanderthals was capable of such behavior, other groups elsewhere surely would have been capable, too,” says retired University of Nevada, Reno, archaeologist Gary Haynes. “This lets us imagine Neanderthals as more like modern humans rather than as humanoid brutes, as they once were interpreted.”
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