Neanderthals hunted and feasted on an extinct elephant species so big that one would feed 2,500 people, according to a new study.
Analysis of 125,000-year-old bones found in what is now Germany shows hunting of straight-tusked elephants (Palaeoloxodon antiquus) was widespread among Neanderthals.
The finds also show that Neanderthals stored “vast” amounts of meat and fat or temporarily gathered in larger groups to eat together, say scientists.
A team of German and Dutch scientists closely examined the bones of elephants that are around 125,000 years old discovered in Gröbern in Saxony-Anhalt and Taubach in Thuringia, Germany, decades ago.
They were able to identify cut marks made by stone tools used by the Neanderthals that indicate that the animals must have been hunted before they were “extensively” butchered.
Two years ago the same team discovered during the analysis of bones found at a former lignite mine in Saxony-Anhalt the very first evidence that Neanderthals actively hunted straight-tusked elephants, the largest terrestrial mammals of the Pleistocene era.
The beasts roamed the landscapes of Europe and Western Asia 100,000 to 800,000 years ago.
With shoulder heights of up to four meters (13 feet) and body masses of up to 13 tons, the European straight-tusked elephant was the largest land-living animal at the time, significantly larger than today’s African and Asian elephants and even bigger than the extinct woolly mammoth.
The new study, published in the journal PNAS, was conducted by of members of Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (JGU), the Leibniz-Zentrum für Archäologie (LEIZA), also based in Mainz, and Leiden University in the Netherlands.
Professor Sabine Gaudzinski-Windheuser, of JGU, said: “The results of the more recent examination of the bones from Gröbern and Taubach now show that the hunting of these elephants by Neanderthals was not an isolated phenomenon but must have been a more regular activity.
“We have estimated that the meat and fat supplied by the body of an adult Palaeoloxodon antiquus bull would have been sufficient to satisfy the daily calorie intake of at least 2,500 adult Neanderthals.
“This is a significant number because it furnishes us with new insights into the behaviour of Neanderthals.”
Previously, research had generally assumed that Neanderthals associated in groups of no more than 20 individuals.
Prof Gaudzinski-Windheuser added: “The information now obtained in relation to the systematic exploitation of straight-tusked elephants indicates that Neanderthals must have gathered, at least temporarily, in larger groups or mastered techniques that allowed them to preserve and store large quantities of foodstuffs – or both.”
The research team now hope to learn more about how Neanderthals hunted such massive beasts and how their hunting activities impacted these and other prey animals.
Produced in association with SWNS Talker
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