Analysis of finds from the Neumark-Nord site near Halle provide first indisputable proof of active hunting of elephants by early humans and change our perception of Neanderthal lifeways
1 February 2023
Some 125,000 years ago, Neanderthals deliberately hunted down and slaughtered European straight-tusked elephants, whose meat and fatty tissue represented an important source of nutrition. This has been brought to light by a team of researchers from Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (JGU), the Leibniz-Zentrum für Archäologie (LEIZA), also based in Mainz, and Leiden University in the Netherlands. The now extinct European straight-tusked elephant was the largest land-living animal at the time – with shoulder heights of up to four meters and body masses of up to 13 tonnes. The animal by the scientific name of Palaeoloxodon antiquus was characterized by its unusually long and essentially straight tusks. It has been unclear to date whether prehistoric hominins actively sought out and killed such elephants or simply scavenged from the carcasses of animals that had died a natural death. For their zooarchaeological study, the researchers used the world's largest assemblage of European straight-tusked elephant remains found at the Neumark-Nord site near Halle in Germany. According to their findings, which have now been published in Science Advances, Neanderthals came together – at least temporarily – in much larger social groups than had been previously assumed.
Unusual pattern among the Neumark-Nord straight-tusked elephant remains
Palaeoloxodon antiquus roamed the landscapes of Europe and Western Asia in a period 800,000 to 100,000 years ago. It was the largest land mammal of the Pleistocene epoch, a period that began three million years ago. Straight-tusked elephants were not only significantly larger than today's African and Asian elephants, but were even bigger than the also extinct wooly mammoth. The remains of at least 70 straight-tusked elephants were uncovered in the 1980s and 1990s during excavations in a gigantic lignite pit in the vicinity of Halle. These remains had been well preserved over the last 125,000 years in the fine-grained lake sediments present here.
A team of Italian paleontologists closely examined the extensive archaeological material from Neumark-Nord some 15 years ago. For them, this accumulation of elephant remains exhibited an unusual pattern in that the mortality profile seemed anything but normal. The remains were almost exclusively from adult individuals and conspicuous among these was a predominance of male animals. This pattern had not been observed before – neither in fossil nor in living elephant populations – and was difficult to explain. When Professor Sabine Gaudzinski-Windheuser began inspecting a selection of the elephant bones in early 2021, she immediately identified traces of what might have caused the peculiarity of this assemblage: human hunting. "The detection of clear and unusual lesions in the bones induced us to undertake a more detailed analysis of the elephant remains," said Gaudzinski-Windheuser, Professor of Prehistoric and Protohistoric Archaeology at JGU and Director of the Archaeological Research Center and Museum of Human Behavioral Evolution MONREPOS, an institute run under the aegis of LEIZA.
Given the uniqueness of the material and the possible implications of the study, the Dutch and German team members decided to analyze the whole assemblage, which consisted of thousands of bones and bone fragments.
Unsurprisingly, this turned out to be a very time-consuming project. They were busy for months opening the large crates in which individual elephants are stored in the reserves of the State Museum of Prehistory in Halle, team-lifting the large and heavy bones to view their surfaces. They also had to handle every piece of bone, identify its location in the skeleton, locate anthropogenic and/or carnivore modifications, and document any apparent changes. "In total, we looked at 3,122 faunal remains of European straight-tusked elephants that had been deposited at the Neumark-Nord site," said Dr. Lutz Kindler, research associate at MONREPOS.
Hunting massive probosicideans to sustain nutritional needs
The archaeological analysis focused on how the lesions were distributed across the skeletal remains. The conclusion reached was that hunting of these Ice Age megafauna in this area continuously occurred over a period of 2,000 years, for dozens of generations. "This constitutes the first clear-cut evidence of elephant hunting in human evolution," commented Professor Wil Roebroecks of Leiden University. Adult male individuals, much larger than the females, are overrepresented in the assemblage, probably because, as with present-day elephants, male adult elephants kept to themselves. Compared to females, they were easier to approach closely without the protection of a herd. Since they were also much larger, hunting them would have yielded much higher returns, for significantly less risk.
Neanderthal cooperation and group size
Hunting these large animals demanded close cooperation between the participating group members, just like prey processing, which entailed extensive butchering, including removing meat scraps from the long bones as well as the fat-rich foot cushions. Processing may also have entailed drying products for long-time storage.
The authors calculate that a ten tonnes elephant – not the largest one at Neumark-Nord – could have yielded a minimum of 2,500 adult Neanderthal rations of 4,000 kcals, consisting of a safe mixture of protein and fat from one animal only. These figures are important as they suggest that Neanderthals, at least temporarily, congregated in groups much larger than the about 25 individuals usually seen as the maximum size of a local group and/or that they had cultural means for large-scale food preservation and storage. The authors leave both options open, but emphasize that both are socially and cognitively important findings, which contribute significantly to our understanding of the range of variation in Neanderthal behavior.
The Neumark-Nord site: A well-preserved archaeological landscape
The Neumark-Nord site complex was discovered in the 1980s by German archaeologist Dietrich Mania, who led a series of rescue excavations in the large brown coal quarry. It was Mania, a former professor at the University of Jena, who initiated a long-term interdisciplinary study of the site. Involved in the corresponding excavations from 2004 to 2008 were the current cooperating partners of Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz, MONREPOS, and Leiden University. With an overall size of over 74 acres, Neumark-Nord is among the largest Pleistocene archaeological site complexes and stands out through its extraordinary preservation of Last Interglacial flora and fauna.
The ongoing work of the teams from Mainz and Leiden includes a substantial re-analysis of the rich assemblages excavated in the 1980s and 1990s. This has, for instance, yielded evidence for close-range hunting of deer by Neanderthals, in the form of the earliest known hunting lesions on bones. In 2021, the group published high-resolution data demonstrating that Neanderthals visibly impacted their environment. With their arrival in the Neumark-Nord region, woodland receded and open vegetation came to dominate the area during the roughly 2,000 years of their presence, associated with their abundant use of fire. This constitutes the earliest clear case of landscape modification in human evolution.