Neanderthal elephant hunters

In the 1980s miners in the Neumark-Nord area of Saxony-Anhalt, central Germany uncovered an extensive assemblage of animal bones and stone tools in opencast ‘brown coal’ (lignite) workings. Archaeologists working over a ten-year period recovered bones from an estimated 70 straight-tusked elephants (Palaeoloxodon antiquus), as well as many other large herbivores, while huge bucket-wheel excavators advanced through the deposit. Most of the elephants were adult males, some preserved as entire skeletons others as disarticulated bones. Weighing as much 15 tonnes – equivalent to ten medium SUVs – and standing up to 4 m high at the shoulder, they were twice as large as the biggest modern African elephants and had far longer legs. Being so tall they could browse vegetation up to 8 metres above the ground surface using an 80 cm tongue as well as a long trunk and their huge tusks.

The lignite deposits formed in marshes and shallow lakes that occupied low-lying depressions left in the wake of retreating glaciers during the last (Eemian) interglacial (130 to 115 ka ago). The warming encouraged temperate forest to extend much further north than it does today. The fauna too would have changed substantially once the ice sheets began to retreat. For instance, mammoths that grazed low tundra vegetation during the preceding ice age disappeared from Central Europe to be replaced by straight-tusked elephants migrating from much further south that had plenty of trees, shrubs and grasses to feed on, as did other herbivores. So the central European plains teemed with big game. The marshes and lakes had little outflow and became depleted in oxygen so that dead vegetation built up to form extensive peat deposits: just the conditions for organic preservation.

Artistic impression of Neanderthal elephant butchery site (Credit: Tom Bjorklund, Science)

The Neumark-Nord sites yielded literally tonnes of fossils, including 3400 elephant bones. But these were not simply the remains of animals that had become bogged down and died of exhaustion. Sabine Gaudzinski-Windheuser and Lutz Kindler of the Johannes Gutenberg University of Mainz, Germany and Katherine MacDonald and Wil Roebroeks of Leiden University, Netherlands have examined every bone for signs of post-mortem modification by humans (Gaudzinski-WindHeuser, S. et al. 2023. Hunting and processing of straight-tusked elephants 125.000 years ago: Implications for Neanderthal behaviour. Science Advances, v. 9, article add8186; DOI: Some bones are so large as to require a forklift to shift or turn them in the laboratory. Most of the bones bear deliberate cut marks made by stone blades: far more than signs of gnawing by carnivores. Neanderthals had got to them before scavengers. The density of cuts and gouges suggests that almost every scrap of meat and fat had systematically been harvested from the corpses, even the fat-rich feet and brains. The sheer number of cuts needed to skin and deflesh the elephants strongly suggests that their meat was fresh: rotten meat could simply have been pulled from the skin and bone quite easily. Little was left for scavengers to gnaw.

Each elephant would have yielded enough meat and fat for an estimated 2500 portions, each with a calorific value of around 4000 kcal. To fully butcher each beast and then to dry and/or smoke the produce can be estimated – by comparison with such work on a modern African elephant – would take around 1500 person hours. To achieve that would require 3 to 5 days of very heavy labour by 25 people. Some means of preservation would have been needed, unless hundreds of people had scoffed the lot at one or two sittings. The authors consider the bounty to imply  that a considerably larger collective of Neanderthals than the previously estimated ~25 per band probably benefitted from a single elephant, whether it was eaten on the spot or preserved in some way and either carried off or cached. But 70 elephants …?

The geographic context suggests a pile of corpses built up in lignite close to or on a lake shore had accumulated over a lengthy period. Using likely sedimentation rates backed by counting of annual tree rings from stumps in the lignite the authors estimate that the pile formed over about 300 years at a rate of one kill every 5 to 6 years. But this site is one of several found in the Neumark-Nord area, albeit not quite so large, and there are probably more, either remaining buried or destroyed by the brutal lignite mining technique. Taking on a herd of animals would be far more risky than hunting individuals. This is where the sex of the elephant remains gives an idea of the hunters’ strategy. Those that could be sexed – about 23  – were all adult males that were estimated to be from 20 to 50 or more years old. By analogy with African elephants, adult male are generally solitary, only joining herds of females and offspring when one or more is at oestrus. Male straight-tusked elephants were more than twice the mass of adult females and when keeping themselves to themselves would have been a safer and more profitable target than females and juveniles in a herd. Solitary males would have been easy to approach, being confidant  that their size would deter direct predation by the largest carnivores, such as lions. In a peaty swamp, simply driving an individual into deep mud would bog it down to be dispatched by spear thrusts. The earliest known thrusting spears have been unearthed in similar lignite beds 200 km away.

This study adds to growing understanding of Neanderthal culture. It suggests that they were not just opportunistic and wandering foragers but regularly combined resources to focus on a specific, very high-value prey. Maybe that was restricted to the special peat-swamp environment of what is now central Germany, but it speaks of an ability to plan and orchestrate spectacular communal events. And they performed such feats again and again. They were the masters of Europe through three of four glacial-interglacial cycles.