These Extinct Elephants Were Neanderthals’ ‘Biggest Calorie Bombs’

In his 1931 book, “How to Tell Your Friends From the Apes,” the American satirist Will Cuppy noted that Neanderthals had fires, caves, marrow bones, mosquitoes, love and arthritis. “What more can you ask?” he mused.

If you answered “bush meat block parties,” you might be on to something. That is essentially the conclusion of a study published on Wednesday in the journal Science Advances. The paper focuses on 3,122 bones, tusks and teeth thought to derive from more than 70 straight-tusked elephants — some skeletons of which were virtually intact — that died 125,000 years ago in a heavily forested lake basin of what would come to be east-central Germany. The researchers argue that, for at least two millenniums, Neanderthals hunted there for the giant, now-extinct carnivores as part of what the paper’s lead author, Sabine Gaudzinski-Windheuser of the Monrepos Archaeological Research Center and Museum in Neuwied, Germany, called their “cultural repertoire.”

Most of the elephant carcasses were recovered during the 1980s in the site complex of Neumark-Nord, a former coal quarry. Their abundant cut marks indicated that the resident Neanderthals had used flint tools to slice off meat, and had found the remains before other carnivores such as saber-tooth tigers. “It is the first clear-cut evidence of elephant-hunting in human evolution,” said Wil Roebroeks, an archaeologist at Leiden University in the Netherlands who is an author on the paper.

By calculating the intensity and nutritional yields of the Neanderthals’ well-documented butchering activities, the research team offers further proof that our hominid cousins were cooperative hunters who knew how to preserve meat and might have lived a settled existence in large groups. The findings challenge the assumption that Neanderthals were basically nomads who lived in bands of no more than 25, in isolation from one another.

Dr. Roebroeks said that group size was the “elephant in the room” in the field of Neanderthal studies. “The idea that Neanderthals roamed about in small bands has been around since the 19th century,” he said. “But the rich Neumark-Nord elephant record points to the possibility of sizable collective-subsistence events.”

Dr. Gaudzinski-Windheuser inspects a femur of the extinct Palaeoloxodon antiquus, or straight-tusked elephant.Credit…Lutz Kindler
The skull of P. antiquus from the Neumark-Nord site, in the State Office for Heritage Management and Archaeology Saxony-Anhalt in Halle, Germany.Credit…Lutz Kindler

He and Dr. Gaudzinski-Windheuser were part of a 2018 investigation that proposed that the punctured bones of two male fallow deer salvaged at Neumark-Nord were the oldest example of hunting marks in history, and that Neanderthals used sophisticated close-range hunting techniques to capture their prey.

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Neanderthals thrived for some 250,000 years throughout Europe and western Asia by successfully exploiting whatever environment they happened to live in. Scholars typically thought of these early settlers as akin to the Inuit of today — clusters of people living at the northernmost edge of human range.

“The new paper highlights the extent to which our view of them as cold-adapted, steppe-tundra, big-game hunters is skewed,” said João Zilhão, a paleoanthropologist at the University of Lisbon who was not involved in the study. “The truth is that they were no more representative of present-day humans as a whole than those Neanderthals were of Eurasian Neanderthals as a whole.”

It is now accepted that the more typical Neanderthal was one who lived in southern Europe through the Ice Age and in central Europe during interglacial periods, as epitomized by Neumark-Nord. About 86,000 to 106,000 years ago, for instance, fisher-hunter-gatherers occupied the Gruta da Figueira Brava site on Portugal’s Atlantic coast.

Similarly, a new body of research has transformed our image of Neanderthals as knuckle-dragging brutes who wandered from cave to cave while gnawing on slabs of slain mammoth. Evidence is mounting that they were skilled toolmakers with a complex language who built shelters, traded jewelry and lived in large social groups.

“Until very recently, Neanderthals were considered simple slaves of nature who were living off the land, the first hippies,” Dr. Roebroeks said. “The truth is that they were using fire to shape their environment, as well as having a huge impact on the most massive animals alive at that time.”

Excavations at the archaeological site at Neumark-Nord near Halle, Germany, in 2007.Credit…Wil Roebroeks/Leiden University

Straight-tusked elephants were the largest terrestrial mammals of the Pleistocene, a geological epoch lasting until 11,700 years ago when vast ice sheets and other glaciers spread across North America and Eurasia. Adult males weighed as much as 14 tons, adult females about half that. The straight-tusked elephant, or Palaeoloxodon antiquus, was the reigning elephant ancestor of that time. It was much larger than the woolly mammoth and roughly twice as big as today’s African elephant.

With present-day elephants, older males usually keep to themselves. “If we assume similar behavior at Neumark-Nord, the solitary bull males would have ranged over the lake shores without the cover of a herd, and therefore would have been easier to move in on than females protecting their young,” said Lutz Kindler, a researcher at the Römisch-Germanisches Zentralmuseum who also collaborated on the study. He acknowledged that scavenging on elephants that died naturally might have left the same marks as butchering those that had been hunted. But, he added, “the concentration of so many bones in a single location makes that unlikely.”

Hunting the “biggest calorie bombs,” as Dr. Roebroeks calls them, may have required little technological sophistication. Of course, a Neanderthal hunter would have to know the behavior of these creatures very well, and would have to be able to predict their behavior,” he said. “But as long as the hunter could immobilize the elephant by, for example, digging pits or driving them into mud traps, the animal could be theoretically finished off with wooden thrusting spears.” Indirect evidence for use of such weapons exists in hunting lesions on the bones of fallow deer exhumed at the site.

Deep cut marks on the heel bone of a male P. antiquus that was about 50 years old at death.Credit…Wil Roebroeks
Cut marks on a foot bone.Credit…Sabine Gaudzinski-Windheuser/Lutz Kindler

Dr. Roebroeks and his colleagues concluded that at least some Neanderthals lived in substantially larger groups than is often hypothesized. The researchers estimated that a group of 25 foragers working in tandem would have required three to five days to skin and carve up a single 11-ton elephant, and an equal amount of time to process it. The yield: more than 2,500 daily portions of 4,000 calories per portion.

The team calculated that an extended family of 25 could go three months before going hungry, 100 foragers could eat for a month, and 350 people could eat for a week, provided they had cultural knowledge and mechanisms to store food over that period by drying, freezing or caching. Traces of charcoal fires have been found at the site, suggesting that the Neanderthals may have dried meat on racks and roasted it. (The researchers also assumed that even a Neanderthal on a Paleo diet would have needed more than meat to survive without nutrient deficiencies.)

Based on sedimentation rates and the number of individual elephants, the team estimated that an elephant was killed roughly every five to six years at the site. “A fully grown male straight-tusk elephant would have provided quite a big pile of meat, about four tons, and it seems likely that the hunters would not have gone to all that trouble just to let most of it rot,” Dr. Roebroeks said. He and the team contend that the Neanderthals of Neumark-Nord either stayed put for months, as opposed to days, or that groups gathered at intervals to dig traps and feast together, which raises the possibility of a broad social, cultural and genetic exchange.

Straight-tusked elephants went extinct at least 30,000 years ago; many factors were probably to blame, Dr. Roebroeks said, including predation, climate change, reduction in food availability and competition from woolly mammoths moving into their territory. Neanderthals had already disappeared by then, pushed aside as Homo sapiens inherited Earth. As Mr. Cuppy observed, “That kind of progress is called evolution.”

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