Neanderthals Hunted Straight-tusked Elephants 125,000 years ago, New Study Suggest

Professor Gaudzinski-Windheuser standing next to a life-size reconstruction of an adult male European straight-tusked elephant (Palaeoloxodon antiquus) in the State Museum of Prehistory in Halle, Germany. Image credit: Lutz Kindler, LEIZA.

Straight-tusked elephants (Palaeoloxodon antiquus) are among the most powerful proboscideans (elephants and their extinct relatives) that have ever lived.

A new analysis of 125,000-year-old bones of straight-tusked elephants from ancient lake deposits in Germany shows that hunting of these enormous animals was part of the cultural repertoire of Neanderthals there, over 2,000 years, many dozens of generations.

The animals had a very wide head and extremely long tusks, and were roughly three times larger than that of living Asian elephants, twice that of African ones, and also much larger than woolly mammoths.

Estimates of maximum shoulder height vary from 3 to 4.2 m (10-14 feet) and body mass from 4.5 to 13 tons for females and males, respectively.

Straight-tusked elephants had a preference for warm temperate settings and has been documented in the middle latitudes of Europe mainly during interglacials, probably finding a refuge in the southern parts of western Eurasia during colder parts of the Pleistocene.

Their distribution overlapped with that of western Eurasian hominins, such as Neanderthals and earlier populations.

Several Paleolithic sites have yielded skeletal remains of straight-tusked elephants, in association with stone tools, leading to rich speculation about the nature of interactions between these large elephants and Pleistocene humans: were these the remains of scavenged animals or may some of them have been hunted, although hunting of these large animals is often considered a dangerous enterprise, with the costs possibly larger than the benefits?

On the basis of the rich material from the travertine exposures at the Taubach site in Germany, archaeologists suggested back in 1922 that Neanderthals were targeting young individuals, hunting them in pit traps there.

In 1948, the site of Lehringen, also in Germany, yielded a skeleton of the straight-tusked elephant, associated with 25 flint artifacts and a wooden lance, while a small number of flint artifacts were recovered during excavation of an adult individual from an ancient lake infill at Gröbern, Germany, in 1987.

However, none of these three localities have yielded bones with unambiguous cut marks, which would provide the most straightforward evidence for elephant exploitation by humans.

Reconstructed life appearance of the straight-tusked elephant (Palaeoloxodon antiquus) in (top) side and (bottom) frontal view, based on remains uncovered from the Neumark-Nord 1 site in Saxony-Anhalt, Germany. Image credit: Hsu Shu-yu.

In new research, Professor Sabine Gaudzinski-Windheuser from the Johannes Gutenberg University of Mainz and MONREPOS and her colleagues analyzed the richest straight-tusked elephant assemblage known thus far, consisting of the well-preserved remains of over 70 individuals.

The specimens were recovered during archaeological rescue operations carried out from 1985 to 1996 at the site of Neumark-Nord 1, which is located about 10 km south of the city of Halle in central Germany.

They 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.

“In total, we looked at 3,122 faunal remains of European straight-tusked elephants that had been deposited at the Neumark-Nord 1 site,” said Dr. Lutz Kindler, a researcher at MONREPOS.

According to the team, all of the studied bone complexes from the site displayed traces of anthropogenic modification of elephant carcasses.

Neanderthals had primary access to fresh carcasses and butchered these in similar ways, involving extensive processing.

Cut marks on skeletons of the straight-tusked elephant (Palaeoloxodon antiquus) from Neumark-Nord, Halle, Germany. Image credit: Gaudzinski-Windheuser et al., doi: 10.1126/sciadv.add8186.

“This constitutes the first clear-cut evidence of elephant hunting in human evolution,” said Professor Wil Roebroecksm, a researcher at 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.”

“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,” the authors said.

“Processing may also have entailed drying products for long-time storage.”

“A 10-ton elephant — not the largest one at Neumark-Nord 1 — 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.”


Published 1 Feb 2023 in the journal Science Advances, doi: 10.1126/sciadv.add8186

 Sabine Gaudzinski-Windheuser et al. 2023. Hunting and processing of straight-tusked elephants 125.000 years ago: Implications for Neanderthal behavior. Science Advances 9 (5).