Historical finds of elephant remains alongside stone tools have long prompted speculation among researchers that early humans or other hominin species may have relied on the massive mammals for food.
Now, a team of researchers has determined that Neanderthals in Europe were taking down elephants and methodically butchering them, yielding food stores that would have lasted Neanderthal groups months. Their research is published today in Science Advances.
The bones belonged to straight-tusked elephants, (Palaeoloxodon antiquus), an extinct species about twice the size of African elephants, the largest living land mammals on Earth. Evidence that Neanderthals were hunting the animals in pit traps was discovered in the early 1920s, and in 1948, a specimen was found near 25 flint artifacts and a wooden lance.
But evidence of hunting does not a butchery site make, and now, researchers believe they have evidence of both.
“These figures…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,” said study co-author Wil Roebroeks, an archaeologist at Leiden University in the Netherlands, in an email to Gizmodo.
“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 behavior, in ways that were unknown before this study, especially at this level of detail,” he added.
The recently analyzed bones were found on Neumark-Nord 1, an archaeological site in central Germany, between 1985 and 1996. In total, the original archaeological team recovered 3,122 elephant remains (comprising more than 70 individual elephants), all of which were analyzed in the new study. The remains varied from oddball bones to entire skeletons of P. antiquus, with some preserved gut contents.
The bones were replete with the signs of hominin activity, the new team reports. Cut marks indicated hominins were cutting tissue from the bone. Cut marks on the skull indicate it was severed from the body, giving the hominins access to the elephant’s brain.
“We calculate that a 10-ton elephant—not the largest one at Neumark-Nord—could have yielded minimally 2,500 adult Neanderthal daily rations,” Roebroeks said.
Despite their historical depictions as oafish brutes, Neanderthals were very similar to early humans. They hunted, ate, and acted very much like our own species, so much so that they often mated with Homo sapiens. Neanderthals were eventually subsumed by Homo sapiens about 40,000 years ago. Today, Neanderthal genes persist in the DNA of most people.
Importantly, the elephants identified in the recent study (and previous studies with evidence of human hunting tools) were overwhelmingly adult males. That was important for indicating that the animals were hunted, not scavenged.
Had the animals been scavenged, they likely would’ve been elderly or very young elephants that succumbed to disease, malnutrition, or couldn’t keep up. Adult male straight-tusked elephants, like modern bull elephants, appear to have been solitary, making them easier fodder for hunters than taking on a herd of females.
“Neanderthals knew what they were doing,” wrote Britt Starkovich, an archaeologist at the Senckenberg Centre for Human Evolution and Paleoenvironment and the University of Tübingen, in an associated Focus article. “They knew which kinds of individuals to hunt, where to find them, and how to execute the attack. Critically, they knew what to expect with a massive butchery effort and an even larger meat return.”
Based on the age of Neanderthal-related objects at the site (like stone flakes and charred seeds), the research team believes that our nearest cousins may have occupied the site for about 2,000 years.
In other words, Neanderthals may have occupied the butchery site for generations, taking down enormous elephants that would keep them fed for weeks, depending on the size of the group.
We already knew that Neanderthals were capable and inventive, but hopefully more sites will yield clues to how these 10-ton elephants were actually taken down—and as a writer about to go to lunch, I’m also curious about how they chose to prepare the meat.