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Neanderthals hunted huge elephants that once roamed Northern Europe | World News

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About 125,000 years ago, huge elephants weighing as much as eight cars each roamed what is now northern Europe.

Known scientifically as Palaeoloxodon antiquus, the imposing animals were the largest land mammals of the Pleistocene, reaching a height of more than 4 meters (13 feet). Despite this imposing size, the now-extinct straight-tusked elephants were systematically hunted and slaughtered for their meat by Neanderthals, according to a new study of the remains of 70 of the animals found at a site in central Germany known like Neumark-Nord. , near the city of Halle.

The discovery is shaking up what we know about how extinct hominids, which existed for more than 300,000 years before disappearing around 40,000 years ago, organized their lives. Neanderthals were extremely skilled hunters, knew how to preserve meat, and lived a more stable existence in groups that were larger than many academics had anticipated, the research suggests.

A distinctive pattern of repetitive cut marks on the surface of well-preserved bones, the same position in different animals, and on the left and right skeletal parts of an individual animal, revealed that giant elephants were dismembered for their meat, fat, and brains. . after death, following a more or less standard procedure for a period of about 2,000 years. Since a single adult male animal weighed 13 metric tons (twice that of an African elephant), the slaughter process likely involved a large number of people and took days to complete.

Stone tools have been found in northern Europe with other remains of straight-tusked elephants that had some cut marks. However, scientists have never been clear about whether early humans actively hunted elephants or ate the meat of those that died of natural causes. The large number of elephant bones with the systematic pattern of cut marks put an end to this debate, said the authors of the study published Wednesday in the journal Science Advances.

Neanderthals likely used thrusting and throwing spears, found at another site in Germany, to attack male elephants because of their larger size and solitary behavior, said study co-author Wil Roebroeks, a professor of Paleolithic archeology at the University of Leiden in Germany. According to the study, the demography of the site was skewed towards older male elephants than would be expected if the animals had died naturally.

“It’s about immobilizing these animals or taking them to muddy shores so that their weight works against them,” he said. “If you can pin one down with a few people and corner them in an area where they get stuck. It’s time to finish them off.”

Preparation of game meat

The most surprising thing about the discovery was not that Neanderthals were capable of hunting such large animals, but that they knew what to do with the meat, said Britt M. Starkovich, a researcher at the Senckenberg Center for Human Evolution and the Paleoenvironment at the University of Tübingen in Germany, in a commentary published along with the study.

“The performance is mind-boggling: over 2,500 daily servings of 4,000 calories per serving. A group of 25 foragers could eat a straight-tusked elephant for 3 months, 100 foragers could eat for a month, and 350 people could eat for a week,” wrote Starkovich, who was not involved in the research.

“The Neanderthals knew what they were doing. They knew what kind of individuals to hunt, where to find them, and how to execute the attack. Critically, they knew what to expect with a massive killing effort and an even greater return of meat.”

The Neanderthals who lived there likely knew how to preserve and store meat, perhaps through the use of fire and smoke, Roebroeks said. It’s also possible that such a meat bonanza was an opportunity for temporary gatherings of people from a larger social network, said study co-author Sabine Gaudzinski-Windheuser, a professor of prehistoric and protohistoric archeology at Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz, Germany.

She explained that the occasion could perhaps have served as a marriage market. An October 2022 study based on ancient DNA from a small group of Neanderthals living in what is now Siberia suggested that the women married outside their own community, noted Gaudzinski-Windheuser, who is also director of the Center for Research Archaeological of Monrepos and Museum of the Evolution of Human Behavior in Neuwied.

“We don’t see that in the archaeological record, but I think the real benefit of this study is that everything is now on the table,” he said.

Changing misperceptions

Scientists had long thought that Neanderthals were highly mobile, living in small groups of 20 or fewer. However, this latest finding suggests that they may have lived in much larger groups and been more sedentary at this particular place and time, when food was plentiful and the climate mild. The climate at that time, before the ice sheets advanced at the start of the last ice age around 100,000 to 25,000 years ago, would have been similar to conditions today.

Killing an elephant with tusks would not have been an everyday event, the study found, with roughly one animal killed every five to six years at this location based on the number found. However, more elephant remains may have been destroyed as the site is part of an open pit mine, according to the researchers. Other finds at the site suggested that Neanderthals hunted a wide variety of game in a lake landscape populated by wild horses, fallow deer and red deer.

More broadly, the study underscores the fact that Neanderthals were not the brutal cave dwellers so often depicted in popular culture. In fact, the opposite is true: they were skilled hunters, knew how to process and preserve food, and thrived in a variety of different ecosystems and climates. Neanderthals also made sophisticated tools, thread, and art, and buried their dead with care.

“To the more recognizable human traits we know Neanderthals had (caring for the sick, burying their dead, and occasional symbolic representations), we must now also consider that they had preservation technologies for storing food and were occasionally semi-sedentary or were sometimes operated in larger groups than we ever imagined,” Starkovich said.

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