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Some 125,000 years ago huge elephants that weighed up to eight cars each wandered into what is now North Europe.
Scientifically known as Palaeoloxodon antiquus, these towering animals were the largest land mammals of the Pleistocene, standing over 13 feet (4 meters) tall. Despite this imposing size, now extinct straight-tusked elephants were regularly hunted and systematically slaughtered for their meat by Neanderthals, according to a new study of the remains of 70 of the animals found at a site in central Germany known as Neumark-Nord, near the city of Halle.
The discovery upsets this we know how extinct hominids, which existed for more than 300,000 years before disappearing about 40,000 years ago, organized their lives. Neanderthals were extremely skilled hunters, knew how to preserve meat, and lived a more sedentary existence in larger groups than many researchers had envisioned, the research found.
A distinct pattern of repetitive cut marks on the surface of well-preserved bones – the same position on different animals and on the left and right skeletal parts of an individual animal – revealed that giant elephants were dismembered for their meat, fat and brains after death, following a more or less standard procedure over a period of about 2,000 years. Given that a single adult male animal weighed 13 metric tons (twice as much as an African elephant), the slaughter process likely involved a large number of people and took days.
Stone tools have been found in northern Europe along with other straight-tusked elephant remains that had cut marks. However, scientists have never been clear whether early humans actively hunted elephants or meat salvaged from those who died of natural causes. The large number of elephant bones with the systematic pattern of cut marks put an end to that debate, said the authors of the study published Wednesday in the journal Science Advances.
Neanderthals likely used thrusting and throwing spears, which were found at another site in Germany, to target male elephants due to their larger size and solitary behavior, the co-author of the study Wil Roebroeks, professor of Paleolithic archeology at the University of Leiden in Germany. According to the study, the site’s demographics were skewed towards older, male elephants than would be expected if the animals had died naturally.
“It’s about immobilizing these animals or driving them into muddy shores so that their weight works against them,” he said. “If you can immobilize one with a few people and get them stuck in an area where they get stuck. It’s about finishing them off. »
According to Britt M. Starkovich, a researcher at the Senckenberg Center for Human Evolution and Palaeoenvironment at the University of Tübingen in Germany, in a comment published alongside the study.
“The performance is breathtaking: over 2,500 daily servings of 4,000 calories per serving. A group of 25 foragers could thus eat a straight-tusked elephant for 3 months, 100 foragers could eat for a month, and 350 people could eat for a week,” wrote Starkovich, who was not involved in the research.
“Neanderthals knew what they were doing. They knew what types of individuals to hunt, where to find them, and how to execute the attack. Above all, they knew what to expect with a massive butchery effort and an even greater return of meat.
The Neanderthals who lived there likely knew how to preserve and store meat, possibly through the use of fire and smoke, Roebroeks said. It’s also possible that such a bonanza of meat was the occasion for temporary gatherings of people from a wider social network, said study co-author Sabine Gaudzinski-Windheuser, professor of prehistoric archeology. and protohistoric. at Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz, Germany.
She explained that the occasion might have served as a marriage bargain. An October 2022 study based on ancient DNA from a small group of Neanderthals living in present-day Siberia suggested that women married outside of their own community, noted Gaudzinski-Windheuser, who is also director of the Monrepos Archaeological Research Center and the Museum of Human Behavioral Evolution in Neuwied.
“We don’t see that in the archaeological record, but I think the real benefit of this study is that now everything is on the table,” she said.
Scientists have long believed that Neanderthals were highly mobile and lived in small groups of 20 or fewer. However, this latest finding suggests that they may have lived in much larger groups and were more sedentary at that particular place and time, when food was plentiful and the climate benign. The climate back then – before the ice sheets advanced at the start of the last ice age around 100,000 to 25,000 years ago – would have been similar to conditions today.
Killing a tusked elephant would not have been a daily occurrence, according to the study, with around one animal killed every five to six years at this location depending on the number found. It is possible, however, that other elephant remains were destroyed as the site is part of an open pit mine, researchers say. Other finds at the site suggest that Neanderthals hunted a wide range of animals in a lake landscape populated by wild animals. horses, fallow deer and red stags.
More broadly, the study underscores the fact that Neanderthals were not the brutal cave dwellers so often depicted in popular culture. In fact, the opposite is true: they were skilled hunters, understood how to process and preserve food, and thrived in a variety of different ecosystems and climates. Neanderthals also made sophisticated tools, thread, and art, and they buried their dead with care.
“For the most recognizable human traits we know of Neanderthals – caring for the sick, burying their dead, and occasional symbolic representation – we must now also consider that they had preservation technologies for storing food and that they were sometimes semi-sedentary or that they sometimes operated in larger groups than we ever imagined,” Starkovich said.
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