What is it about?

Earlier in 2023, we published a study of a very rich assemblage of elephant bones from Neumark-Nord (Germany), which showed that 125,000 years ago, Neanderthals regularly hunted and butchered straight-tusked elephants, the largest terrestrial mammals of the Pleistocene. At this location, the remains of minimally 57 elephants had been recovered by archaeologist Dietrich Mania and colleagues from lake deposits, exposed during large-scale lignite mining in the area, about 150 km south west of Berlin. The Neumark-Nord evidence was thus far without parallel in the archaeological record. Given its relevance for our knowledge of Neanderthal behaviour, our team investigated whether the subsistence practices documented there were more than a local phenomenon, possibly determined by local characteristics of the former lake environment. Analyzing elephant remains from two other contemporaneous archaeological sites on the North European plain. Taubach and Gröbern, we identified in both assemblages similar butchering patterns as at Neumark-Nord, consistent with complete processing of entire carcasses to remove all edible meat, fat, and other tissues.

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Why is it important?

This new study demonstrates that extensive processing of large elephant carcasses was a widespread Neanderthal practice on the North European plain during the Last Interglacial period, and not limited to the Neumark-Nord area only. The substantial efforts needed to process these animals, weighing up to 13 tons, and the large amounts of food generated - a 10 ton animal probably yielding more than 2,500 portions of daily calories – importantly show that Neanderthals either had cultural ways of storing vast amounts of meat and fat, and/or temporarily aggregated in substantially larger groups than commonly acknowledged. While the data do not allow us to prioritize one of these two explanations, this new study in combination with earlier work about Neanderthal subsistence, also suggests that these hominins may have had a substantial impact on the faunal communities of the Last Interglacial period, from smaller mammals up to and including the megaherbivores, including elephants. The picture below shows the skeleton of a straight-tusked elephant, freshly exposed in front of the very large lignite excavator in Gröbern, one of the sites reported on in the paper. Between the bones of the animal, stone tools were recovered during rescue excavations in 1987 (© Landesamt für Denkmalpflege und Archäologie Sachsen-Anhalt).

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This page is a summary of: Widespread evidence for elephant exploitation by Last Interglacial Neanderthals on the North European plain, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, December 2023, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences,
DOI: 10.1073/pnas.2309427120.
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