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How ancient humans hunted elephants with stone tools

Archaeologists at Tel Aviv University have made a remarkable discovery about the connection between Paleolithic stone tool sites, elephant hunting and water sources.

Dr. Meir Finkel and Prof. Ran Barkai led research that indicates the strategic choice of ancient quarry locations in relation to elephant migration routes.

Meet the prehistoric hunters

Let’s journey back in time to the vast expanse of the Paleolithic era, a period stretching back over two million years.

It was an age when our ancestor, Homo erectus, walked the Earth. Life was a constant pursuit of survival, and these resourceful humans relied heavily on hunting.

Without the natural weaponry of other predators, Homo erectus depended on their ability to craft stone tools. These tools were their key to obtaining food and thriving in their environment.

Elephant hunting

Picture a colossal elephant, its enormous bulk dwarfing the surrounding landscape. Now, imagine a group of Homo erectus hunters, armed with their carefully crafted stone tools.

Elephants represented a significant food source for these ancient people. A successful elephant hunt could provide a bounty of meat, enough to sustain a group for a considerable time.

Studies of Paleolithic sites like Gesher Benot Ya’akov in Israel show just how important elephants were to the diet of our prehistoric ancestors.

Water, elephants, and stone

Dr. Meir Finkel and Prof. Ran Barkai of Tel Aviv University made a crucial discovery. They observed that Paleolithic stone quarries weren’t randomly placed.

“Ancient humans required three things: water, food, and stone,” explains Prof. Barkai. These quarries consistently appeared near water sources and along known prehistoric elephant migration routes.

The pieces of the puzzle began to fit together. “An elephant consumes 400 liters of water a day on average,” says Dr. Finkel, “and that’s why it has fixed movement paths.”

Elephants, like all creatures, needed to remain near sources of water. Early humans, with their keen observation skills, would have quickly picked up on these predictable routes.

Well-timed elephant hunt using quarry

Let’s envision a Paleolithic hunting scene. A seasoned group of hunters spots a herd of elephants lumbering towards a familiar river crossing.

In a time before refrigeration, they know that once an elephant is brought down, the clock is ticking.

They face a limited window of opportunity to butcher the immense creature before scavengers or spoilage can claim the meat.

Nearby stone quarries played a vital role in this process.

By preemptively setting up tool production near the elephants’ paths, hunters ensured they had a ready supply of sharp tools to process their catch quickly and efficiently.

A global trend in elephant hunting

The research scientists weren’t content to examine just one location.

They looked for similar patterns — these triads of stone quarries, water, and evidence of elephant or other large animal hunts — throughout the globe.

Intriguingly, the trend held true across Europe, Asia, and Africa. “It was a tradition,” Prof. Barkai explains, “For hundreds of thousands of years the elephants wandered along the same route, while humans produced stone tools nearby.”

Elephant extinction due to hunting

This relationship between humans, elephants, and the landscape offers a captivating insight into how early humans interacted with their world.

They studied the movements of their prey, refined their toolmaking techniques, and established practices that likely persisted for countless generations.

However, this balance was not destined to last. The elephants of the Paleolithic era eventually faced extinction, bringing a dramatic end to this ancient way of life.

Study insights

It’s worth noting that researchers drew inspiration from observations of modern hunter-gatherer groups.

In many of these cultures, the places where raw materials are found — quarries, special clay deposits, etc. — hold cultural and even spiritual importance.

This hints that perhaps Homo erectus also imbued their stone quarries with significance beyond their practical purpose.

The power of observation

In summary, the study by Dr. Meir Finkel and Prof. Ran Barkai from Tel Aviv University sheds light on the mystery surrounding Paleolithic stone quarrying and tool-making sites.

They discovered that the locations of these sites were closely tied to the migration routes of elephants, the primary prey of ancient humans.

The researchers found that the “Paleolithic holy trinity” of water, elephants, and stone held true universally, with humans preparing cutting tools in advance near water sources where elephants gathered.

This tradition continued for hundreds of thousands of years until the extinction of the elephants, forever changing the world. Sometimes, the footsteps of an elephant can reveal the solution to a long-standing archaeological riddle.

The study is published in Archaeologies.


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