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Neanderthals hunted gigantic elephants for food

A new analysis of finds from the Neumark-Nord archaeological site complex near Halle in Germany has provided the first indisputable proof of active hunting of elephants by Neanderthals, changing our perception of these early hominins’ lifestyle and social organization.

The now extinct straight-tusk elephant (Palaeoloxodon antiquus) – a gigantic creature with a height of up to four meters and a weight of nearly 13 tons – roamed the landscapes of Europe and Western Asia between 800,000 and 100,000 years ago. The remains of over 70 such elephants were unearthed in the 1980s and 1990s during archaeological excavations in a massive lignite pit in the vicinity of Halle.

By closely examining these fossils, the scientists were surprised to find that they were almost exclusively body parts of adult male individuals. Further detection of clear and unusual lesions in the bones helped the experts infer that they were most likely hunted by Neanderthals during a period of over 2,000 years, for dozens of generations. “This constitutes the first clear-cut evidence of elephant hunting in human evolution,” said study senior author Wil Roebroeks, an archeologist at Leiden University.

According to the experts, since male adult elephants most likely kept to themselves, they were easier to approach closely without the protection of the herd, and were thus an easier catch for the early hominins. Moreover, since they were also larger, hunting them would have yielded more meat for significantly less risk.

Hunting and afterwards processing these massive beasts demanded close cooperation between the participating group members, suggesting that Neanderthals congregated in groups much larger than the approximately 25 individuals that scientists previously considered to be the maximum size of a local group. Moreover, the complexity of prey processing – entailing extensive butchering and drying products for long-term storage – provides evidence that Neanderthals may have had social and cultural means for large-scale food processing and storage.

“The intensity and nutritional yields of these well-documented butchering activities, combined with previously reported data from this Neumark-Nord site complex, suggest that Neanderthals were less mobile and operated within social units substantially larger than commonly envisaged,” the authors concluded.

The study is published in the journal Science Advances.


By Andrei Ionescu, Staff Writer

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