How An Ancient Elephant Fossil Changed Our View On Early Human Habits

A cache of Palaeoloxodon antiquus fossils that once roamed parts of Northern Europe has changed notions of what Neanderthal lifestyles were like, according to a study published in February 2023 in the journal of Science Advances. Neanderthals are an extinct human species that lived from around 100,000 to 40,000 years ago across Europe and Eurasia, per Britannica. Palaeoloxodon antiquus elephants — or ancient, enormous, straight-tusked elephants, perhaps the largest land mammals known to science that probably died out around 20,000 years ago — lived during the Pleistocene period in the same area and in a timeframe that overlapped with the Neanderthal timeframe, as the U.K. Natural History Museum explains.

Standing around 15 feet tall and weighing as much as seven tons, straight-tusked elephants were larger than most elephant species alive today (per Discover Wildlife). Prior to uncovering the remains of 70 straight-tusked elephants in Central Germany, it was understood that Neanderthals likely ate them, but whether Neanderthals hunted and killed the enormous animals or scavenged their meat after they were dead was unclear. As the study published in Science Advances study from the German Monrepos Archaeological Research Center reveals, based on the straight-tusked elephant fossils, Neanderthal social structure, hunting, and food preservation were all far more sophisticated than scientists once believed, according to CNN.

3,000 straight-tusked elephant bones were examined

In the Monrepos study, 3,000 individual bones from over 70 straight-tusked elephants were examined, all dating to around 125,000 years ago, according to Science Magazine. What researchers found was that most bones recovered belonged to male members of the species and that as much as 4 tons of meat could be recovered from each animal — enough to feed hundreds of Neanderthals for weeks if not months depending on the size of the population. Each individual elephant died over a 300-year period, and what linked the straight-tusked elephant fossils to Neanderthal hunting practice were thorough and clean cut marks and the gouges found on the bones.

What those marks suggest is that the elephant meat was removed through a painstaking and time-intensive process rather than gnawed on by scavengers or even perhaps Neanderthals after the animals were already dead. Prior to the Monrepos findings, Neanderthals were known to be proficient hunters, likely by thrusting or throwing spears into or at their prey, according to CNN. It was also thought that Neanderthal populations rarely exceeded 20 or so individuals. Because of the sheer scale of the German lakeshore discovery, as well as the enormity of the animals killed and processed, those assumptions have now been reassessed.

It took a lot of Neanderthals to process that much meat

Foremost in the Monrepos findings, it took a large number of Neanderthals — far more than 20, the number once assumed to be the typical size of a Neanderthal population — to not just hunt and kill a straight-tusked elephant but to process the meat. Part of the Neanderthal strategy to take down these giant creatures could have been to corner them in the muddy banks of the lakeshore where their fossils are found today, as CNN writes. The sheer amount of meat gathered from a straight-tusked elephant also suggests Neanderthal populations, at least in the area the fossils were found, were much larger than once thought and possibly used meat preservation practices with fire and smoke to maintain large food supplies over time.

The same assumptions can't be drawn over all Neanderthal population, but in this one area of Germany in this snapshot in time, straight-tusked elephant hunting and meat processing appear to have been advanced. Then, as now, a large windfall of food could have also been an occasion for a holiday-like feast or celebration, suggesting an elaborate social structure among Neanderthal populations. Though not involved in the Monrepos study, retired University of Nevada archaeologist Gary Haynes told Science Magazine, "If one regional group of Neanderthals was capable of such behavior, other groups elsewhere surely would have been capable, too. This lets us imagine Neanderthals as more like modern humans rather than as humanoid brutes, as they once were interpreted."