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RECENT ARCHAEOLOGICAL RESEARCH suggests that Neanderthals didn’t necessarily live in small groups of brutish humanoids: “On the muddy shores of a lake in east-central Germany,” Andrew Curry writes in Science, February 3, 2023, “Neanderthals gathered some 125,000 years ago to butcher massive elephants.”

Curry writes, “The degree of organization required to carry out the butchery—and the sheer quantity of food it provided—suggests Neanderthals could form much larger social groups than previously thought.”

Image by Tom Björkland from Science, February 1, 2023. 

More Than 70 Elephants. “The find,” Curry describes, “comes from a trove of animal bones and stone tools uncovered in the 1980s by coal miners near the town of Neumark-Nord. Beginning in 1985, archaeologists spent a decade observing the mining work, recovering animal bones and stone tools from a sprawling site.”

Curry says, “Dating to a relatively warm period in Europe known as the Eemian interglacial, 75,000 years before modern humans arrived in Western Europe, the discoveries include the bones and tusks of more than 70 mostly adult male straight-tusked elephants (Palaeoloxodon antiquus), an extinct species almost twice the size of modern African elephants that stood nearly 4 meters tall at the shoulder.”

A full-size reconstruction of  Palaeoloxodon antiquus in the Museum of Barnstaple and North Devon. Image by User:Jack1956 from Wikipedia. 

Hunting Straight-tusked Elephants. Wikipedia describes, “Both early human beings and the straight-tusked elephant reached the European continent in the late Early Pleistocene [2.58-1 million years ago]…. Various archaeologists in Germany have dealt with the question of elephant hunting in the Paleolithic…. With the assumed clan size of five to ten people and a shelf life of 30 days for meat, only animals with a weight of up to one ton, such as cattle, deer or horses, would be considered as game. Elephants would provide up to ten times more meat than the group could consume over the period.” However, the article also briefly mentions this 2023 finding.

Methodology. “We wondered, ‘What the hell are 70 elephants doing there?’ ” says Lutz Kindler, an archaeozoologist at the MONREPOS Archaeological Research Center.

“To find out,” Curry says, “he and his colleague Sabine Gaudzinski-Windheuser, also an archaeozoologist at MONREPOS, spent months examining the 3400 elephant bones, which are now stored in a warehouse. Some weighed dozens of kilograms and required a forklift to move. Under a microscope, Gaudzinski-Windheuser says, nearly every bone showed signs of butchery.”

Curry continues, “Although scientists have long known Neanderthals were capable hunters, these cutmarks ‘seem to be the first evidence of large-scale elephant hunting,’ says April Nowell, an archaeologist at the University of Victoria who was not involved with the research. Gouges and scratches on nearly every bone show the hunters were thorough. ‘They really went for every scrap of meat and fat,’ says University of Leiden archaeologist and study co-author Wil Roebroeks. The bones hadn’t been gnawed by scavengers like wolves or hyenas, suggesting nothing was left for them.”

A 1912 illustration of a straight-tusk elephant. Image by Erwin S. Christman, published by H. Osborn, “Men of the Old Stone Age” from Wikipedia.

Quite a Feast. Curry recounts, “The meat from a single elephant would have been enough to feed 350 people for a week, or 100 people for a month, the researchers calculate. In the past, Neanderthals were thought to live in small, highly mobile groups of about 20 individuals at most, but the elephant bounty suggests far bigger groups—big enough to slaughter and process an entire elephant and big enough to consume it—once lived near the site, the researchers report today in Science Advances.”

“This is really hard and time-consuming work,” Kindler says. “Why would you slaughter the whole elephant if you’re going to waste half the portions?”

It woulda been one helluva Neanderthal shindig. ds 

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2023

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