Neanderthals hunted elephants

The now-extinct flat-tusked elephants were gigantic animals: twice the size of modern African elephants, standing 4 meters tall at the shoulder and weighing up to 13 tons.

Despite its impressive size, Neanderthals hunted these elephants 125,000 years ago, a study published Wednesday showed for the first time, shedding new light on our understanding of these prehistoric humans.

Wil Roebroeks, co-author of the study published in the journal Science Advances, told AFP that Neanderthals were able to manage large amounts of food, not just by hunting horses, bovids or deer.

“Either keeping it for a long time – and that’s something we don’t know anymore – or simply because they live in larger groups than we previously thought,” he explained.

According to the researchers’ calculations, it would take about twenty men several days’ work to butcher an average of ten tons of game before the meat rots. And provide three months of food for 25 people and one month for 100 people. Perhaps they dried it under fire to preserve it.

How did the Neanderthals kill these colossi? It’s impossible to say for sure, but one hypothesis is that they were immobilized by pushing them into muddy areas or dug traps where they got stuck before finishing them off with spears.

– Tool notches –

For a long time, researchers have been interested in the presence of ivory next to stone tools at several archaeological sites. Were Neanderthals really able to hunt them, or did they feed on naturally dead animals?

The last evidence of hunting, a blow mark or a spear embedded in the bone, was never observed – which is not surprising given the openness of the wings of these animals (Palaeoloxodon antiquus). elephants.

But at a site known as Neumark-Nord 1, near present-day Halle, Germany, a clue alerted scientists: the remains of about 70 elephants, the largest known group, were mostly adult males. According to the study, the lack of diversity caused by selection by hunters.

Lone males should have been easier to kill than females living in herds. They also represented more food due to their larger size.

The researchers then analyzed the extremely well-preserved bones of about sixty of these elephants under a microscope: they showed clear traces of flint tools used by Neanderthals to cut them – notches of a few centimeters at most.

“These are classic cut marks from carving and breaking flesh from bones,” said Wil Roebroeks, professor of archeology at Leiden University in the Netherlands.

According to the researcher, the environment in which these Neanderthals lived and where the animals were found may have been favorable for their capture by loose soil near the lake. After death, elephants are skinned on the spot.

About 40 of these specimens date back to a period spanning only 300 years, leading researchers to estimate that an animal was killed about every five to six years.

– Generations –

According to the study, elephant hunting was practiced there by Neanderthals for at least 2,000 years, or tens of generations.

But Neanderthals lived on Earth for a very long time (about 400,000 to 40,000 years ago). In Europe, in contrast to the period analyzed on the Neumark site, “it was often colder than today”, explained Wil Roebroeks. But “our image of the Neanderthal is very much directed to colder times.”

Faced with more food thanks to a favorable climate, they were able to move to a more sedentary lifestyle in larger groups. However, it is quite difficult to determine their number with precision.

In any case, the study shows that “the world of Neanderthals was very diverse,” according to Wil Roebroeks. And they “were not just slaves to nature, they were original hippies living off the land.”

“They were able to shape their environment (…) by having a real impact on the world’s largest animals at that time,” the researcher concluded.


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